TIA,” says Leonardo DiCaprio in the Hollywood film Blood Diamond. TIA means: “This is Africa”, a saying that denotes the continent’s pull on the human soul. But what is “Africa” Not the continent, but the concept. Is it just a diverse conglomeration of life Or is it more I wanted to find Africa’s beating heart, so decided to look in the land where all the continent’s facets come together – South Africa. Hot and cold, wet and dry, human and animal all exist in South Africa and I wanted to experience them all. So I enlisted the help of tour company African Space. Its Shark Teeth ‘N’ Ele Tusks itinerary would take me from the far south around Cape Town to the Mozambique border at Sodwana Bay in the north. It features diving, of course, plus the country’s culture and wildlife. And somewhere I hoped to discover what places Africa, the concept, in my heart. Cape Town is the African city most like western Europe. Its seasons are fairly distinct, and its colonial architecture fits around its welcoming and cosmopolitan people comfortably and smartly. Cape Town, then, is Africa’s Capital of Cool. Where else can a grown man head to the office looking like AC-DC’s lead guitarist (but cleaner and less drug-addled) and not get a second glance Cape Town is a melting pot of ideas, styles, cultures and experiences. It’s where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet, and where bloody cold meets temperate water. To get an overview we scaled Table Mountain. You can climb it, but the revolving cable car is far more civilised. The view from the top is spectacular, but I wasn’t here just to sightsee. One of the main reasons divers come to Cape Town is the proximity of Carcharodon carcharias, the great white shark. Tourists flock to Gansbaai, a small town nearby, to see the ocean’s top predator. Divers are a bit of a sideshow, and as long as you accept that, you’ll be fine. I know great white sharks are misunderstood, so I stood back a while and let the scared, screaming holidaymakers find out for themselves. I used to be against non-divers coming into our realm, but now I’m an advocate. When the screaming stops and the fascination starts, that’s when sharks get saved. The white shark experience involves climbing into a cage with others and breath-holding when the sharks come along. The water is fairly turbid, so photography can be tricky, but the experience is magical, especially if you’ve never seen a GW before. Cape Town’s waterfront is a place for cool people to hang out, but it’s not pretentious. Even the swanky restaurant where we dined the evening after the great-white encounter was fine-dining African-style. Meat-eaters in South Africa are in for a treat. Forget just ordering a steak or pork ribs, the selection is gastronomical and includes warthog, kudu and several antelope. And even if you do order a beef steak, it’ll be divine. Cape Town is also surrounded by vineyards – the wine quality is excellent and it’s inexpensive. Eating out and drinking in South Africa costs a fraction of what you’d expect to pay in the UK. Don’t pass up the opportunity to sample other diving experiences in Cape Town. White sharks are a necessary show, but broadnose seven-gill cow sharks (Notorynchus cepedianus) are a must-see. Seven-gills are primitive beasts usually found in deep water, but there are a few nearshore shallow gathering places, and False Bay off Simonstown is one of them. In 15m of water, the sharks cruise through kelp beds like motorised drainage pipes with the faces of dim-witted cows. They knew I was there; they knew I was almost the same size as them, and they didn’t care. They just swam around like lords of the manor, and it was a fantastic experience. So many sharks are put off by scuba exhaust, but these fellas weren’t. I was enthralled. From enthralled, I went to entertained. Close by is a colony of Cape fur seals, which are fun to play with. We got in a little way from the colony to see the seabed covered in colourful featherstars; many with egg cases of the puffadder shyshark (a type of mottled catshark) wrapped in them. We also found a couple of adults. As we approached the seal colony, a Gavin-sized bullet sped through the water at me. It turned abruptly as it got within arm’s reach, and whizzed at the next diver along. Cape fur seals are as fast as speeding trains, agile as ballerinas and cheeky as urban foxes. It wasn’t long before a gang of youngsters was whizzing around, pirouetting and somersaulting in front, behind, above and below us. That’s what sitting in a classroom full of five-year-olds on a sugar-high must be like. I don’t often leave the water chuckling, but that was all I could do. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had under water. The weather in Cape Town was exceptional. The sun shone, the wind was like a student on Sunday morning (couldn’t be bothered to get up) and the temperature was that of a good summer’s day in the UK. Not bad for the southern autumn – but that started to change on our last night. A cold front moved in from the Atlantic like an arthritic tsunami, smothering the city. We drove over Chapman’s Peak, one of Jeremy Clarkson’s favourite roads, and up onto Devil’s Peak. Here the sun sank below the clouds we were above, creating a surreal view of Table Mountain and Cape Town’s city bowl. It was a fitting end to a superb couple of days in the far south. Next stop was about as far north as you can get along the Indian Ocean coast of South Africa – Sodwana Bay. This is more the Africa you see in encyclopaedias. It’s a small community of local hang-outs, ramshackle houses and rustic lodges. It’s a step back in time from the sophistication of Cape Town, but rooms come with a free mosquito deterrent (a gekko), and the bird song is gorgeous. This is the Africa that originally stole my heart. The dive-boats leave from a poor excuse for a bay, more of a pimple on the seafront of Africa’s east coast than a sheltered location. It’s a pleasant spot, however, with a lovely cafe, lots of sand and a surf launch zone.

THE REEFS ARE NAMED mostly for their distance from the launch zone. The furthest is 9 Mile, but I preferred 7 Mile and 5 Mile, both of which feature massive shoals of snapper. There’s little to beat swimming through a yellow ball of life that divides around you. There are also turtles, peacock flounders, crocodilefish and, on both reefs, a real chance of seeing a manta ray being cleaned. Not that I did. Both reefs are past a line of beach where whale sharks and dolphins are often found. On the way to and from the dive sites we came across a pod of bottlenose dolphins, and every day they were keen to see us. Stopping the boat and slipping into the water carefully allowed us some close encounters – a good way to start or end a dive trip. The water at Sodwana is not oceanic in its clarity. There’s a lot of nutrient in the water and if it’s rough, the sand can easily be kicked up. Even in poor visibility, there’s plenty to find on the reefs, with the macro life as good as the larger organisms. Leaf-fish, blennies, harlequin shrimps, cleaner shrimps, ghost pipefish and a host of nudibranchs and other sea snot make the reefs look like an exploding Christmas tree.

THE MARINE ECO-SYSTEM is only a part of the Africa experience, and the Shark Teeth ‘N’ Ele Tusks tour slides away from the coast and into the rugged terrain of the South African savannah. The black rhino is on the very brink of destruction, thanks mostly to poaching, inadequate Chinese businessmen and an Arabic ceremonial dagger called a jambiyas. Black rhino numbers crashed by 96% in the 1970s thanks to the horn trade, and haven’t really recovered. The White Elephant Lodge is on the front line in the fight to save the rhinos. The lodge is in Pongola Game Reserve, where the WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project is active, so there was a chance that we might glimpse one in this ideal habitat. In fact we found six animals in two family groups. Black rhinos prefer dense scrub with lots of bushes, so are hard to see. I managed just a few glimpses from a Land Rover during a game drive but, staying quiet and keeping low, the ranger walked me into a position to see them. My heartbeat was louder than my footsteps on the red soil as we edged closer. I was crouched over, desperate to avoid breaking a twig or scraping a bush, and all the time recalling an encounter some years ago when we were charged by an angry white rhino. I was scared but also exhilarated as I watched an animal so rare and so victimised that its horn has to be radio-chipped, and its populations moved around the continent slung under helicopters, to ensure its survival. Both on land and under water, Africa is full of dedicated people hoping to save one creature or another from the extinct list. Some, like Mark Addison, operate at a more grass-roots level. He may not work for an NGO or with a critically endangered species, but he is doing much for environmental awareness, and his company Blue Wilderness was our next stop. Working along the massive fossilised sand dune now called Aliwal Shoal (after a ship that ran aground here in 1849), Mark and his wife Gail are the unseen facilitators of nature documentaries on the BBC, Discovery and National Geographic channels. He is also the inventor of baited tiger shark dives at Aliwal Shoal. I know this as I was one of his first victims (sorry, customers).

ALIWAL SHARK DIVING is now firmly on the map, and much has been learnt since I first submerged below the Indian Ocean here six years ago. Everyone is now swimming with tiger sharks, even octogenarians, and this has given the species a boost in terms of protection. Aliwal has changed, however. Tiger sharks need a water temperature of 23°C and above to want to feed, and in the past three years it has barely touched that figure. It’s fortunate that Aliwal divers can still see a good population of blacktips. Carcharhinus limbatus, as scientists know them, are the shark equivalent of King’s Cross Station commuters at rush hour. They have no idea of personal space, and no manners. Divers are irrelevant to them, but they took over the Aliwal shark feeds and while that was OK when the tigers weren’t around, they are now back. Mark, accordingly, has devised a dual baited system, so the tiger sharks come in beneath the melee. My day with these sharks was as incredible as any other shark feed I’ve done. I appreciate and admire blacktips – and towards the end of the dive, a tiger shark did arrive. So with two shark species down at Aliwal and five in total for South Africa, we went looking for a sixth. In the southern autumn, Aliwal is home to male raggedtooth sharks. Finding them isn’t always easy, however. We dropped into the Cathedral and found none. Against the slight current we swam to the second site known as Raggie Cave, and straight away I could see one shark in the cleft in the rock. It was with another, and two more were milling around outside.

THE RAGGEDTOOTH, or sand tiger shark as it is known elsewhere, is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, but in parts of its range it is on the verge of localised extinction. The South African population is fairly buoyant, however, which is great news for shark-lovers. So we had travelled the length of the east coast of South Africa and ended up somewhere in the middle. I had encountered critically endangered and vulnerable species, all doing fairly well or at least being helped to avoid oblivion. I’d ridden the waves, trodden the rich red soil, eaten the incredible array of meats, drank superb wine and let the warm African sun kiss my face and its water bathe my body. Am I worthy to proclaim “TIA” A little, perhaps. I defy anybody to rub a pinch of African soil between forefinger and thumb and not feel the heartbeat of humanity’s birthplace.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: South African Airways flies from London direct to Cape Town. Internal flights are also with South African Airways and flights home from Durban via Johannesburg. Road transport is in air-conditioned minibuses.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Gavin Parsons travelled with African Space on its Shark’s Teeth & Ele Tusks guided tour. A range of accommodation is offered, from the luxurious Grand Daddy hotel in Cape Town and White Elephant Lodge in Pongola to more rustic but comfortable surroundings in Sodwana and Aliwal.
WHEN TO GO: The Shark’s Teeth & Ele Tusks tour runs every two weeks from October to March. money South African rand.
MONEY: South African rand
PRICES: The 14-day Shark’s Teeth & Ele Tusks tour costs from £2525, excluding flights. Included are six nights’ B&B, two nights’ full board and three nights’ breakfast and dinner, 11 dives, four safari activities and all scheduled internal transport. africanspace.co.uk
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.southafrica.net