Thursday, 1 May 2008

Diving in the Rainbow Nation

“Now remember there is no need to panic. Just remember to keep breathing and what ever you do, stay close to your buddy. Now let’s go down and enjoy every minute of it!” These were the last words of wisdom Gabby shared with us before we went down on our first dive in the Indian Ocean. We were told this was going to be a life-changing experience, one beyond our wildest expectations, but no matter how many books I read and photos I trawled through, nothing could have quite prepared me for life deep-down in the Ocean.

It was a chance conversation with my cousin Gabby that led me to diving. In fact it took no time or effort what so ever for her to convince me that I would have a holiday to remember. All I needed to do was raise the money for the trip, but where there’s a will there’s a way, and I wasn’t going to let that stop me!

South Africa, is known as the adventure capital of the world, with its breath-taking landscapes that rule the region, its natural beauty and wildlife that will leave you awe-struck, the invigorating mountain and ocean air, but above all South Africa is home to some of the friendliest people you will ever come across.

After 24 hours of travel we finally arrived in Johannesburg extremely excited. Coming from an Italian family means that nothing is done by halves and our welcome party certainly was testament to this! We were greeted with a typical South African braaii (BBQ), much wine and a whole bunch of people eager to meet the infamous poms! This was to set the bar for the rest of our stay. We were warned that South Africans knew how to party, but nothing could have prepared us for the next three weeks…

Gabby, along with her partner Simon, are both qualified PADI scuba diver instructors running their diving school, Sandton Scuba, a PADI 5 Star Instructor Development Centre in the northern suburbs of Jo’burg. Sandton Scuba is much more than a diving school and shop; it is a way of life bringing together an astonishing mixture people of all ages and backgrounds. When you think of diving centres, you immediately think of beach huts scattered along the coast, and in many cases you would be right; however more and more diving centres are opening inland, offering competitive packages to divers of all levels wanting to enjoy the underworld whilst not living by the sea.

Within days of our arrival and as soon as the jet lag had subsided, we were chucked in the pool to begin our PADI Open Water course. What with the drinking and the altitude (Jo’burg lies at 1,753 metres), the swimming tests and theory lectures proved to be somewhat testing to begin with, but we soon got into the swing of things and were happily learning how to piece together our scuba equipment without tripping over our cylinders!

However my relationship with wetsuits was one that I did not relish for the duration of the trip. Trying to get into a wetsuit in 28 degrees of heat is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy! Suffice to say that the daily procedure became a source of entertainment for all as I swiftly lost all dignity and grace, as I struggled with this particular item of clothing.

We were warned that every time we made a mistake or didn’t pay attention, we would be forced to drink tequilas as penitence (obviously once out of the water). From the first time I put my wetsuit on back to front, to finding it funny to knock the regulator out of the girls’ mouths to swimming off from the group following a strange-looking fish; I can safely say I forged a strong friendship with Jose Cuervo.

After much training in the pool, getting used to breathing under water, discovering the beauty of making bubbles and learning the basic scuba skills, we were ready for the next big step, our first open water dives in the Indian Ocean at Sodwana Bay (meaning “little one on it’s own” in Zulu).

So a week after landing in South Africa, all in convoy we start our journey towards Sodwana Bay in order to qualify as Open Water scuba divers. From Jo’burg it takes around 7 hours to drive there, so to break-up the journey we decided to spend an evening in Pongola at the Country Lodge.

Pongola’s location is ideal, positioned on the main route between Swaziland and KwaZulu-Natal, home to the indigenous Zulu and Tonga communities. It is situated in the valley of the majestic Lebombo Mountains and is an area rich in Anglo, Zulu and Boer history. One of the jewels of the Zulu Kingdom, the area boasts the first ever game reserve in Africa, proclaimed by President Paul Kruger in 1894.

The next morning, with a slightly hazy head, but much excitement, we hit the road for the last couple of hours to reach Sodwana. After a bumpy ride along some of the richest red soiled tracks I have ever seen, we arrived at Sodwana Bay Lodge, kicking up a trail of dust.

Sodwana Bay lies hidden amongst the coastal dunes at the Northern Edge of the St Lucia Wetland Park on the infamous Elephant coast line. The dive sites of Sodwana Bay represent the most southerly hard coral reef systems in the world; an underwater paradise less affected by global warming than reefs further north. Located at the centre of a vast marine reserve, Sodwana Bay is widely recognised as the scuba diving Mecca of South Africa.

The reef systems of Sodwana play host to a myriad of tropical fish, with over 1,200 species of fish in addition to a wide variety of marine life.

There are humpback whales, ragged tooth sharks (also known by the locals as ‘raggies’), whale sharks, tiger sharks, manta rays and giant morays.

As our launch boat left the shore for our first dive in the open water, we clung on for dear life to the sides, as our skipper Prince, fancied himself as the Renegade of the Seas, literally riding the waves with the boat at a 90˚ angle. After what seemed a life time, we arrived at our first dive site, Anton’s Reef.

We started to get our scuba gear ready, turning on the air to our cylinders, ‘accidentally’ hitting each other with the fins, trying to untangle our bikini straps from our very uncomfortable wetsuits, the usual rigmarole for any diver, we presumed. Then out of the blue we were told to ditch the gear and get straight into the water with our masks and snorkels. We obeyed.

If you have been there you know, if you haven’t, then it is difficult to describe the feeling of sharing the water with a whale shark, the biggest fish in the sea. More like a whale than a shark, these fish are right at the top of most divers ‘to see’ lists and contrary to popular pre-conceptions, they are not intimidating in the slightest and are more like gentle giants.

So you can imagine how honoured we felt when jumping into the water on our first ever ocean dive, to be lucky enough to experience the presence of the king of the mystical sea world!
Like magic as soon as we entered the water a whale shark was leisurely swimming a couple of metres below us. It was quite an experience to see such an animal covered in a beautiful pattern of whiter spots and lines. I paused, mesmerized. It took a moment to process the sight of an eight metre long whale shark in all its spotted glory, lingering just a few kicks away.

The experience took my breath away. Luckily there were eight tanks of oxygen ready for such moments. Then I realised they were floating 20 meters away inside a slippery dinghy, so I had to make do with the occasional breath of half sea water half air coming through my snorkel, which seemed to be acting as more of a funnel for the increasingly rough sea than as an air supply!

We were to find out later that there are people who have dived for years who are yet to come across a whale shark – which made the experience all that more special, as we realised how truly privileged, yet spoilt we had been.

Over the course of the following few days we continued to dive and my eyes were opened up to a whole new world. After completing our skills on each dive, we were free to go exploring the multitude of reefs that lay on the ocean bed. It was like being in a scene from Finding Nemo, except better because we were featuring in it! Hovering over reefs spotting nudibranchs (colourful sea slugs), playing hide and seek with a very cheeky honeycomb eel as he darted in and out of the dens in the reef, playing with the tropical ‘Nemos’ (clown fish – for the geeks), whilst trying not to get my fingers bitten by them as they swam in and out of the anemones. Swimming off from the group, much to Gabby’s dismay, I followed emperor angel fish, clown trigger fish and Moorish idols to name but a few. Swimming through a school of fish and then having one of them come up to your mask and stare at you is quite something.

It was on our last dive before qualifying, with not long to go before surfacing, that we came across the most gorgeous leatherback turtle swimming proudly over the reefs. We were lucky enough to get some great photo shots.

On my final ascent just before I hopped back on to the boat a white-tip shark swam just under my feet. That’s the great thing about the ocean; you always have to expect the unexpected. Within minutes I was taking off my fins, while my fellow divers laughed hysterically at me as I managed to expose more than desired whilst battling to take-off the wetsuit. Two juxtaposing worlds.

So that was it – we were now fully qualified Open Water divers and completely over moon! Who would have thought that ten days before I was staring at Gabby completely perplexed as she handed me a BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) jacket and told me to get in the pool!

To celebrate we decided to head out to Lake Sibaya, a crystal beauty hidden just north of Sodwana. We packed the car full of celebratory beverages and with a fantastic collection of 80s ballads and classic ‘rock’ tunes, we drove off into the sunset to go and spot some more wildlife.

Lake Sibaya is the largest natural fresh water lake in South Africa with an area of 60 to 70 km2 and the only source of permanent water for birds and mammals in the region. It also contains the second largest population of hippopotamus and crocodile in KwaZulu-Natal. Crocodiles tend to sunbathe during the midday heat, so we too late for them, but as the sun was setting we spotted two hippos peaking their heads over the water. Such magnificent and grand creatures.

Returning back to Jo’burg felt quite surreal after having had five amazing, breath-taking days. Now we had to get ready for our trip up to the North in the Kruger Park and Gona Re-Zhou National Park in Zimbabwe.

Scuba diving offers utterly unique experiences amongst the serenity and sublime tranquillity of the underwater world. As you go under, everything turns calm and peaceful. All is forgotten but the steadiness of your breathing and exploring the under-world and its inhabitants.

Diving has opened my eyes to a whole new world that I yearn to know more about. There is something addictive about being so deep under water. It leaves you completely mesmerized, wanting to re-live the same experience time and time again.

My next challenge will be bracing the cold waters of the UK in a dry suit!