|It came from nowhere, like a torpedo locked onto its target. Several feet of pure muscle, with a rounded snout full of teeth, there was no mistaking the Zambezi, one of the most powerful and dangerous sharks in the sea.
I had broken away from the main group and was drifting alone in midwater on one of South Africas more adventurous dives. My heart was pounding, but the idea that I might become fish food had not penetrated my mind. This was my chance to capture a rare photograph.
Raising the camera to my face, I watched the magnificent creatures approach. I had never been charged by a shark before, and all I could think of was that picture. But as it closed on me, my cameras auto focus started to struggle. The shark was coming in too fast!
With the Zambezi feet away, I began to come to my senses. I had lost confidence in myself. Here on the famous Protea Banks, one of the worlds hottest places for shark encounters, it was as if I had a gun but the safety lock had jammed.
I shut my eyes for a second, then peered out from the side of my camera. The shark was so close, I could hardly bare to look again, but just as I did, it turned away. Had it seen its reflection in my dome port, or did it recognise that I wasnt its usual prey Perhaps I was just too bony.
I didnt care. I was unscathed and thanked God for that, but cursed myself for not having had my Nikonos camera and getting that award-winning shot.
In South Africa, mind-blowing experiences come thick and fast. In the few trips I have made to this incredible country, I have been charged by elephant and buffalo, surrounded by more than 40 sharks, played tag with seals, and come face to face with lions and great whites, all this experienced amid stunning scenery. No wonder the locals call it Gods Country.
My first experience with lions was at a private game reserve called Phinda, near the Kruger National Park. We had finished diving at Protea Banks and were heading north to Mozambique, where diving is available just across the border.
After stopping over at the game park, we had risen at 5am for the morning drive. I can remember the freezing air in my face as we raced through the bush in one of the reserves open 4x4s - that woke me up all right.
We had already seen a couple of rhinos, a small steenbok and a pair of battleur eagles when the call came through on the radio from one of the other vehicles: Lions, lions, zebra kill, zebra kill!
Racing through the bush, churning up the dust, we quickly found the lions - 11 of them. They were ripping the zebras apart, and drawing in alongside the other vehicle we settled down to watch them breakfast. I could hear the bones cracking, and was very glad to be in the relative safety of a 4x4 some 30m away.
Watching those powerful jaws crunching through their prey set me thinking back to Dyer Island, several hundred miles to the south, where the waters are cold and you share them with seals and penguins. Just a week earlier, I had been 2m under water and centimetres away from a great white shark.
My wire cage, which was being swung all over the place by the currents and swell, had felt very fragile, like being on a ski simulator. The water, like that early-morning air at Phinda, was freezing, but when a 3m white shark had begun to circle, I quickly forgot about the temperature.
At first it seemed content to check out its surroundings, like any other fish in the sea. It calmly swam around the cage, up to the seal meat which the surface crew had tethered to a line and buoy, then back and around the cage again. This continued for some 10 minutes. Then, lion-like, the shark started to home in on the cage and slowly wind up for the kill.
Aroused by the slick of crushed sardines and fish oil, teased with the baited line and attracted by the small electrical current given off by the cage, it could hold back no longer. As in that classic scene in Jaws, it came straight for the cage, tossing it and me back towards the boat like a football.
I managed to hold on to my camera with one hand and the cage with the other as the shark sunk its teeth into the wire. Everyone knows that a great white has an impressive set of teeth, but there is nothing like a close-up dental examination to inspire real awe.
That encounter might have been staged, but it was both scary and memorable. However, I had experienced an even scarier moment a couple of days earlier.
My group was returning from Cape Point, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. In the Cape Of Good Hope nature reserve, we stopped for photographs, which was when an aggressive young baboon chose to jump in through an open window of our van.
We were shown a set of teeth that looked extremely large, and, believe me, every bit as sharp as a white sharks, but this time we had no cage to protect us.
Luckily, the baboon quickly left the van through the side door which we had helpfully opened for him, pausing only to swipe a plastic bag full of goodies.
We had more than our share of experiences on that trip. After meeting the great white, we had headed up the coast along South Africas famous Garden Route, stopping to dive at Knysna. The reefs here, fed on the nutrient-rich water from a beautiful lagoon, are rich in life. Huge cauliflower soft corals, basket stars and brightly coloured sponges seem to cover almost every centimetre of reef.
Strong south-easterly winds had created huge swells, but having travelled a long way to explore these gardens, we would not be defeated. We sped out in RIBs to where the sea spilled through a narrow mouth into Knysnas lagoon. I have never experienced such rough conditions before or since, even during a Force 7/8 in the North Sea. We were pushing our luck; for much of the ride out to the site our boat was airborne!
Our goal was Bruces Bank, just 1.5 miles out from the lagoon. Here two spectacular pinnacles reach up some 15m from the bottom, which is at more than 30m.
In the right conditions this is an incredible dive, but most of us found it terrifying on this occasion. Even below 20m, the swell was horrendous.
It was like an endless bungee jump on an imaginary rope, and in the end I was forced to cut my dive short. If I return there, I will do so only under safe conditions.
But the weather can be as unpredictable in South Africa as it is in the UK. The next day we found Plettenberg Bay, a short drive east from Knysna, almost flat calm in bright sunshine. After surfacing from our dive there, we spotted two southern right whales.
The rule is to keep a boat 300m away from a whale in South Africa, but some of our group were intent on bending the rules, and by being dropped off ahead of the creatures managed to swim with them. They might have had an unforgettable experience, but rules of this nature are strictly enforced. Someone from the shore spotted the swimmers and reported the dive centre, Indian Ocean Divers, to the authorities. It made the front page of the local paper the next day.
South Africa offers epic animal encounters on land and in the sea, but also some colourful people experiences. I have great memories of staying in a village in Zululand, where our host, Chief Mbhangcuza (Thomas) Fakude and his several wives put on the most amazing entertainment for us, including some hair-raising traditional dancing.
But when it comes down to it, I always prefer a show that has not been staged. You wont find a better one than the annual romp on Aliwal Shoal. During July and August, hundreds of ragged-tooth sharks congregate to mate along the spectacular limestone reefs, three miles of caves, gullies, tunnels and pinnacles.
I lost count of the number of raggies on one dive here in September. The sharks stay as late as December some years, before the females head north into Mozambique. They also gather on Protea Banks and it was at a site called Arena here that I had my closest encounter, when one shark actually brushed past me.
Protea Banks for me offers the best shark diving in the world. I counted seven species on one dive with my friend and guide Trevor Krull, who has dived the Banks longer than just about anybody but Andy Cobb, Mr Shark Africa himself.
My best memory is of diving with both these two masters on the same dive. Andy, now a leading conservationist, carried his fishing lure, an assortment of shiny metal objects, while Trevor, once a professional spearfisherman, used his old speargun to attract the sharks . You need to be supremely confident to dive Protea Banks day after day, and those two are just that.
Trevor recently told me that he had a great white encounter on the Banks last year. Perhaps thats why he has decided to sell African Dive Adventures and move north to Mozambique. Mind you, you need some nerve to work there, too, but thats another story.
|DIVE SOUTH AFRICAS BIG THREE CENTRES
|ONE: PROTEA BANKS
The Natal coast has warm water, colourful reefs and breathtaking marine life. Five miles offshore between Margate and Shelley Beach lie Protea Banks, fossilised sand dunes with a generous scattering of soft coral, some hard coral and sponges. Strong currents and the large number of sharks mean that diving is usually limited to experienced divers. Here viz can reach 40m, thanks to currents from Mozambique.
In summer, great shoals of gamefish arrive, including giant kingfish, barracuda, sailfish and bonito. Zambezi and occasionally tiger sharks follow them in, and mako and great whites have been seen here. Schooling hammerheads are most likely to be found in summer.
By early winter, the gamefish have gone but sardines arrive in vast numbers and attract the agile copper sharks. This spectacular Sardine Run usually occurs in June. From mid-August, hundreds of sand tiger sharks, or raggie-tooths, congregate for their spring mating. They are not aggressive, though they look it.
We also sighted a couple of bronze whalers while decompressing at 6m. Manta, eagle and ribbontail rays and resident potato bass can also be found.
Protea Banks has several sites, including the Arena (15-40m), the Caves (30-35m), and the North and South Pinnacles. The North Pinnacle reaches around 27m and inside the small opening to a large cave you can join up to 30 raggies. Other excellent sites a mile off Shelley Beach are best dived late in summer, when the viz improves.
TWO: ALIWAL SHOAL
Fifty miles north of Protea Banks lies Aliwal Shoal, another fossilised sand dune just three miles off the town of Umkomaas. Diving here can be badly affected by the nearby SAICCOR pulp mill, which pumps its treated effluent straight into the sea.
For best viz, dive in winter, from May to September, when less water flows down the Nkomazi river. August-September can be exciting, as the raggies congregate in their hundreds, but the weather can be unpredictable.
Most popular sites are at the eastern end of the reef: Raggie Cave (15m) and, to the south, the Cathedral, a spectacular archway at 27m which makes a great stage for raggies. Its best to watch them from the openings rather than swimming in, because you could damage the fragile coral roofs and frighten them off.
On both North and South Sands, also around 15m, rays, sand and guitar sharks can be seen, and at Manta Point to the north-east you are likely to come across large shoals of Moorish idols, butterfly and angelfish. Its not a coral reef, but Aliwal Shoal has good soft and hard corals and spectacular sponges.
Wreck enthusiasts will find a couple of excellent dives a mile short of the Shoal - the Nebo, a cargo ship carrying railway track which sank in 1884, and the Produce, a molasses freighter sunk in 1974, fairly intact in 30m. Because of variable sea conditions, using SMBs is the norm at Aliwal Shoals.
THREE: SODWANA BAY
For many years synonymous with game fishing, the discovery of rich reefs has made Sodwana Bay a magnet for divers. Go at the weekend and youll have to share this paradise with thousands of South Africans, so visit during the week while theyre working!
The most southerly coral reef in Africa, Sodwana is exposed to exceptionally rough seas at times, but the marine life is special, with new species of fish, nudibranchs and invertebrate seemingly being discovered all the time. The reefs consist mostly of soft coral, stunted but colourful, and impressive hard-coral growth, especially where the reef has been killed off and regenerated. With no rivers nearby, visibility is very good.
The most popular reefs - Two, Five, Seven and Nine Mile - lie just over a mile from shore but are named according to their distance north from Jesser Point. The water is warmest in summer, but never less than 21C.
Dive Antons on Two Mile Reef are rocky pinnacles crammed with colourful corals and large shoals of bigeye and goatfish, butterfly angelfish and Moorish idols, with honeycomb morays, grouper and potato bass also in attendance.
Five Mile Reef was less busy but when I visited produced more shoaling fish, morays, lionfish and anemonefish. We were also joined by a pod of dolphins, audible for much of the dive but visible only at the end when they swam past.
The coastline from Cape Vidal to the Mozambique border is a marine reserve. Sodwana falls under the protection of the Natal Parks Board, which offers dive concessions to three operators. Safe launches can be made only from Jesser Point, which can get very congested.
Congestion on the reefs is also monitored. Nine Mile Reef, noted for its soft coral growths, is semi-protected, with strict limits on diver numbers.
Diving apart, a drive to nearby Lake Sibaya, the largest natural freshwater lake in South Africa, is popular, with a good chance of seeing hippos, crocodiles and fish eagles. Phinda, Mkuze and Hluhluwe game reserves are within easy reach.
WHO TO CONTACT:
AFRICAN DIVE ADVENTURESis run by Beulah and Roland Mauz, based in Margate. They say the outfit pioneered diving at Protea Banks but that it can help put the right package together for any budget or personal preference. Tel/fax 0027 39 3171483, www.cybercraft.co.za/dive.
DIVE THE BIG FIVEoffers the most itineraries. Trips are guided and clients pampered on all but its budget trips, hence the prices, which exclude flights. Packages range from six days budget great white cage-diving (US $1390, almost double for the inclusive package) to the 20-day Dive South Africa ($6380). Call 0027 13 750 1832, www.divethebig5. co.za or UK Diversion Dive Tours, York on 07044 750 242.
JABULA DIVING AND SAFARISruns a 14-day diving and game safari trip starting at Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks then heading up to Zululand. The tour includes two nights at a game park before heading up to Sodwana and Mozambique.£1495 includes flights, transfers and meals. Tel/fax 020 8883 2468, www.jabula.co.uk
OONASDIVERSoffers a 15-day tour with four days diving Protea Banks, five days at Ponto DOro in Mozambique and two days safari to Hluhluwe and Umvolozi. Flights and guided tour are included in the£2220 price. Tel 01323 648924, www.oonasdivers.com
SCUBA DISCOVERY, part of the Skiworld group, can arrange a weeks diving at Aliwal Shoal from£950, including flights to Johannesburg, transfers and B&B. Diving at Protea Banks is an additional£55 a day, and trips to the Cape and Dyer Island, diving with great whites, on wrecks and with seals, are available. Tel 023 9283 8773, www.scubadiscovery.com
TONY BACKHURST SCUBA TRAVEL Tel 0800072 8221 and regal diving 01353 778096 can also arrange trips.
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