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Two Weeks in South Africa, 1999

Back in South Africa, diving at Sodwana Bay

I wasn't sure when I left Mkhaya, 24 hours after I'd entered it, if I'd made the best use of my time in Swaziland, but in any event, it was time to move on to the South African Natal Kwazulu coastline, and so I sped for the border, which I reached at about 11 o'clock. Formalities there were perfunctory, and the scenery fairly flat and nondescript. I was following roadsigns now, making the turns that would take me to Sadwana Bay, which was at one point a remote part of the country just below the Mozambique border, but which was becoming popular enough to warrant construction of a major road to the national park and diving beaches.

The road construction caused me some confusion as the crews had not left highway markings, and I made one wrong turn and had to go back up a dirt roadbed, unpleasant to drive on. At one point, the road turned sand, with cars coming the other way making their own tracks, sometimes to the left of me, sometimes to the right. Eventually I came out on a coastal road and when I passed a sign for Triton Dive Charters a little after noon I figured I must be in the right area. The road to Triton looked to head into the dunes, so I didn't stop there, but continued on until I saw a restaurant with a fence around it protecting the parking lot. It looked like a place where I might get some information, so I stopped in.

When I told the people there I was looking for information on diving, they called after a customer who was just leaving. Jakes was the guy's name, and he was just getting in his pickup with his blond ladyfriend. His business was deep sea fishing, but he said he's show me to people who could help me out, but as he led me up the road, I realized he was taking me back up to Triton. At least, with him in the lead, I didn't have to worry about getting hopelessly stuck on the sandy track, and this is how I ended up throwing in with Triton during my stay at Sadwana.

It was here at Triton that I first experienced the friendliness of the Afrikaans people, though I didn't meet the crowd until later that evening. For the moment, I was shown to a bungalow with a pair of beds and a screen door that didn't lock and told I could have that for 75 rand, or about $12.50 a night. Despite their simplicity, the facilities were pleasantly constructed, with a toilet and bathing area open to the sky but walled off in tightly woven reed, kept clean by the ubiquitous black grounds staff. The facility was self catering. Though there was a bar there was nothing to eat there. Diving, unfortunately, would not be happening until in the morning, and there would be a briefing that evening, but there were other diving operations up the road at the beach in the park, and if I hurried, I might get in on an afternoon dive.

So I did. I hurried. I drove on up the highway through Sadwana, which must have had all of ten shops (could easily have missed it), past the beach resort with its forbidding gate and spacious lawns, and into the park, past the gate where I paid 8 rand entry fee, and a further fifteen minutes to a parking area, where I left my car roadside to walk over the hill to the beach. Black kids hanging about there offered to watch my car for me, an offer I took as a potential threat, so I confirmed with the government attendant there that he was indeed on duty, and that his duty was to watch cars. This was a national park, I figured. It must have some degree of security.

The beach was an attractive stretch of sand with breakers pounding all along the hilly coastline for as far as I could see. The wind was up an whistling through the trees, and white horses flecked the water beyond the surfline. A few dive boats, large inflatable rubber dingies, were being hauled off the beach, but it was obvious that there wasn't much going on in the way of diving that afternoon. I found a dive shop and stopped in for a chat. Diving would recommence next morning I was told, and if I wanted to go I should attend a briefing at six at that shop's camp. I found out there were reefs every couple of miles, the closest being 2-mile reef, and the furthest being nine-mile. I asked what I'd be likely to see there and was given descriptions of the usual reef fishes. Not much difference in 2 and nine-mile reefs, I was told except the fishes might be a little larger.

By then it was almost 3:00. I returned to my car, still intact (I checked the trunk, somehow the fact that it was still there and not broken into always relieved me). I drove further into the park toward its headquarters. LP had said there was a walk to a hippo pond there. On the road I encountered a couple of young black ladies who prevailed on me to give them a lift. They were going to the tuck shop outside the park headquarters which I later learned was the best excuse for a grocery store in the entire area. Their walk to get there, unless they got lifts, must have taken them hours. They showed me the trailhead for the hippo walk, which was right by the store.

A sign on the trailhead warned me to check at the park office, and there I was told that it was too late to start the walk, a 5 km loop. I had three hours to sunset, and I knew I could run 5 km in half an hour, but as the ranger on duty was discouraging me from making the trek, and since I'd seen hundreds of hippos in the past week, and since it was a bit sticky hot out, I decided I wasn't that enthused to do it. I got a can of food at the shop instead and left the park back out the road I had come. On this stretch I picked up another black hitchhiker, making his way out of the park with his carved wares which he'd been trying to sell. He had a broom made out of a single stick of wood, but with one end painstakingly frayed into a strands to form a brush. It was in a utilitarian way a work of naive art. He also had other carvings of animals such as lizards which he showed me since I'd asked about the broom. He seemed like a gentle artisan who went to a considerable amount of trouble for his work and got little return off it (he wanted something like 20 rand for the broom). I dropped him at one of the buildings outside the park.

I popped into another of the buildings, a bottle shop, and picked up a selection of beers which I took back to Triton and stored in the fridge. I'd already met a couple of the others staying there in passing that day, but the place was still quiet, children napping I suppose. So I decided to go out for a meal.

This entailed another run over the sand track which I was getting quite good at now in my little Hyundai. As usual, there were people trying to get lifts on the road, always black, so I stopped for a couple who piled in my car. I took the opportunity to ask these people where I could eat. The choices were the Captain's, where I had met Jakes earlier that day, where I could get whatever food I wanted, and another place further down the road, where I could also get whatever food I wanted. But there was something in the way he said it in regard to the latter place that peaked my interest, so I decided to go there. The guy got out first, and it turned that he was the skipper of the Triton dive boat I would be diving from the next day. The lady I was carrying was on her way to work at the restaurant where I had decided to eat, so it was convenient to drop her there. Later, when she waited my table, I got great service.

I was the only customer at this restaurant, where I was deliberately eating before sundown so as to get back down the sand road before dark. But the restaurant was obviously prepared for a huge onslaught of people later that night. A row of video games stood ready and the bar was prepared for all comers. I propped open my laptop and had a leisurely meal while writing this, and at sundown, headed for home.

On the road, I picked up yet another plaintive black person, this one a matronly lady trying to get to work at the clinic where she had night duty. She was a little put out that the buses weren't running. She was very polite and pleased that I would go to the trouble to take her further up the road past the Triton to drop her in the township where the clinic was. Not only that, but I drove her the few hundred meters off the road to the gates of the clinic. She tried to hand me some coins but I refused of course.

Back at Triton, the Afrikaans were getting their braai going. There was a huge concrete slab between the bar and the food preparation areas that was a natural gathering place for people staying here, especially as the flames for the braai drew us in like moths. I kept myself in beer from the fridge as I got to know the others there. As I'd be diving with them, I made sure I introduced myself to each person, although I couldn't always converse, since they almost all of them would lapse into Afrikaans with each other. Still, group by group they made the effort. There was a family down from Bloomfontein going on their first ocean dive together, a young blond farmer and his comely wife and their kids, and the wife's mum who worked at the university in Pretoria. There was another young and attractive diving couple who spoke only Afrikaans, even at the dive briefing later, which was in English. And there were Peter, the guy who ran this business, and his divemaster Peter, who seemed to me more at home in English, as was the first Peter's wife, Rolene, who did her goodnatured best to keep the business on course despite her Peter's proclivity toward comeraderly drink with his buddies. In this she was assisted by the sober and competent efforts of divemaster Peter, whose job that evening seemed to be to keep the braai stoked with wood from the pile.

Then there were a few CMAS instructors about. These guys were also from Bloomfontein, and they had come down to pave the way for an onslaught of their students whom they had trained inland and who would be arriving on the morrow, mid-day, after our morning diving. In fact, the expected arrival of all these people was the reason I had been granted my room for one day only, but as I got to know the instructors, talk turned to how they could work something out so that I could stay on if I wanted. They were a friendly lot, but like my BSAC pals back in Abu Dhabi, they constantly provoked a friendly rivalry with PADI, which they didn't consider to train to their standard. I'm a PADI instructor, and Peter was a PADI divemaster, and the two of us were the subject of a bit of piss-taking, mostly in Afrikaans, during the evening. When the jabs were translated, we gave our own back in English.

It seems I was getting on well with these new companions. After they'd consumed their barbies they asked me if I'd like to come along for a drink with them. I agreed, though I'd been living the past week on an up at dawn, asleep by nine or ten schedule. At about that time, Peter decided he'd have to have a shower first, and when he reappeared, it was with a bottle of beer, which we had to all consume prior to going out to consume more. I had understood it was Peter's birthday, and this was why we were going out drinking so late despite the fact that diving was set for six in the moming. I had also understood that we were going to the bar where I'd had dinner, which I'd been led to believe was a raucous black hangout, but up the road, we pulled off into the Captain's restaurant, where we parked in the gated lot and went inside for a few rounds. Jakes, whom I'd met earlier that day, was there with his buxom mate. He'd been providing entertainment on an amplified guitar and was just packing up, but he was persuaded by the new arrivals to plug it back in. I had thought to ask if I could play a number or two, but the songs it turned out were all in Afrikaans, and the dozen people there obviously favored them, so I thought better of that plan. I just accepted the Carling's passed to me and observed the crowd conversing in lively Afrikaans. At some point I wished Peter a happy birthday, and he said he'd pass the message. Turned out it was Rolene's birthday, and Peter was out celebrating it without her. But technically, it was no longer Rolene's birthday, since midnight had slipped past. I remembered Rolene's last words to me as we left for the night: take your own car. Over protests, I had, and at this point I decided to effect my escape plan. I was in bed by one, but I heard the others come in at around three in the morning. Apparently, they had gone over to the more lively bar.

In the morning, I was up at dawn as usual, and divemaster Peter was hosing down the boat as per plan. Rolene was supervising, trying to keep the crew on schedule. One of the Bloomfontein divers and I went to the instructors' cabin where we tried to get those guys out of bed, and eventually all but one emerged. We decided that Big Peter was Rolene's problem. Rolene was a bit put out with one of the instructors who came along at the last minute and decided to fill a tank, delaying her efforts to keep to the time frame. I was trying to cadge a lift with someone since I my room didn't lock and I figured the safest place to leave my stuff was in the boot of my car parked at Triton. However, it turned out I would have to drive my car over to the beach with my passport and computer locked inside. On the way, I picked up another hitchhiker, a black ranger who worked at park headquarters. This was an educated fellow with a slight chip on his shoulder who found it difficult to get past the fact that a white person had given him a lift, though he opened up a bit when he discovered I was American. On the way I became curious how much a car would cost relative to this guy's salary, and I got some inkling of that when he waved his hand and said, he had NO idea what a car would cost, as if it was so out of the question, that it was in a different quantum from what he was used to dealing with. I gave the guy a lift up to park headquarters and doubled back to park just off the beach. Fortunately, the attendant was still on duty, and it seemed as if the cars parked there would be safe.

Diving off that beach was a major operation, and one that had its distinct ritual. There must have been a dozen or more dive outfits all hauling their rubber boats to the beach, and each set up its own huge tent over a groundcloth laid out on its landgrab of sand on which equipment for the group was laid out. The work was done mostly by an army of blacks who scurried about erecting tents and manhandling boat trailers, and loading the tanks and regs into the boats and counting weight belts to verify the number of divers on board. The whites were getting into wet suits or easing into beach chairs, or assembling dive gear, and otherwise preparing for a day of leisure at the beach. The blacks were not there to enjoy the beach. For them, it was a another workday. If they were not directly employed by a white dive outfit, they might be working the fringe, approaching politely, asking if they could wash off a wetsuit for you. They had an air of polite, restrained, economic desperation.

This would be my first taste of diving in South Africa. Launches through big surf were always exciting, and always risky. The water was slightly colder than what I was used to, around 20 degrees C, and the first task was to get this water up your wetsuit as you helped pull the boat into the water until it could get its engines on. Because engine power was so critical for getting through the surf, all dive boats had two engines, usually 85 hp. All equipment was tied down or stowed, and the tanks in the middle were rigged with regs and lashed tight. The divers sitting on the rubber edge had ropes to hold on to and footstraps on the deck. All aboard, the boat raced into the surf and looped back toward shore as the skipper awaited a break in the waves. At just the right moment, he turned out to sea and gunned it. We popped up one wave before it crested, landing with a splash on the other side, and avoided the next by racing to its edge ahead of the curl. In a few moments emulating a sort of reverse-white water rafting, we were past the surf zone and heading out to "2 mile reef" (2 miles out), where other dive boats were already scattered over the various sites. It was a big reef, and there seemed to be plenty of room for all.

At the site, everyone kitted up together. The boatman maneuvered us to the exact drop point and everyone went in at once. Once in there was little messing around on the surface. I heard later that a diver who had delayed too long at this point had appeared to a great white to be a seal and had not survived the experience. With more wetsuit than what I was used to, I was a little underweight, but I finned down and let the depth compress me to where I could stay down at depth. From there, it was a matter of enjoying the dive.

However, I wasn't that impressed. True to what they'd told me at the dive shops, there was little more there than reef fishes. The water was a little unpleasantly cold, and there was nothing of interest that couldn't be seen in more tropical waters elsewhere. Vis was better than it usually is in Musandam, but there was nowhere near the number of fish. Overall I was disappointed in this particular corner of the great Sodwana reef system. Of some consolation though, the rufty tufty CMAS instructors were all up after 35 to 45 minutes, as were their students, leaving me and Peter, the PADI divemaster, all to ourselves at the end of our 50 minutes of dive time.

Back on the boat there was some discussion in Afrikaans to which I paid little heed, and when people made motions as if to swim for shore through the surf rather than ride the boat in, I just assumed this was their habit. It looked like it might be fun to body surf in, and it would all be in keeping with the Afrikaans esprit de vivre. However, it turned out that these actions had been made necessary by one of the engines on the boat conking out, which I understood only when another boat turned up to offload us, making the swim for shore unnecessary. With us all aboard the second boat, we raced into the surf, keeping the engines going just enough to ride the backside of a wave in. Once the wave depleted itself inside the high surf zone, we raced for the shore. The skipper lifted the engines at the last minute as we crashed onto the sand, the boat heeling over on one of its pontoons, all but dumping one set of divers onto the other. Everyone clamored off the boat in good spirits and started to warm up in the hot sunshine.

From there the morning dissolved into a kind of confusion. Peter and Rolene went back for what I understood was another boat as those who planned a second dive kitted up and waited. After a long time, during which other dive operations sent their boats out, Peter turned up in his Land Rover not with another boat but with a set of tools with which he started to attack his bad engine. By then the wind was blowing strong, and sand was streaking across the beach. The CMAS instructors were suggesting that it probably wasn't worth diving again that day, and they invited me to accompany them on a drive up the beach. They had already worked out how they could juggle people so that I could stay on another night and dive with them the next day, and one of them had even invited me up to Bloomfontein to visit with him on his farm, but I had decided that I didn't want to invest another 24 hours in the prospect of another dive same as the first, so I got Rolene's attention and paid her right there on the beach for what I owed for the use of her gear and the dive and the night's lodging. It all came to about $40, incredibly good value, possibly the cheapest diving in the world apart from the Philippines or Central America.

I headed back to Triton to have a shower and transfer my backpack, all I'd left in my room, to my car, and by noon I was on the road again. Rolene had given me instructions for getting to Huehuwe, my next destination. Again I had trouble with road construction and even got onto one segment from which there was no exit. Students were streaming by my car on their way home from school, and though the one I asked couldn't explain how I could regain the road, his advice to go back where I started and try again worked, and I was soon back on my way. Rolene had given me a good secret for getting where I wanted to go, and this was to reach a road which was marked closed, but to take it, since it was the road they were building to where I wanted to go. Now I was back on tarmac and making good time, and I even had company on the road in the form of other traffic, though at one point I reached a construction crew where a worker shouted aggravatedly at me from a tall Caterpillar tractor. I couldn't understand what he was telling me, but I saw his point a few hundred meters further when I found my way blocked completely. Fortunately there were cars coming the other way who were making their way through bush roads past the obstruction, and I managed to figure out where to go and rejoin the main road under construction all the way to the town of Hluhluwe.

That road was due to transform Sodwana, by the way, from the sleepy little remote corner of South Africa it once was to an easily accessible strand of resorts and upmarket diving facilities that may exist there by the time you go see for yourself. Rolene was not looking forward to the change, though it couldn't be bad for business, except that it would increase competition and increase the number of people on the reefs at what, on a good day, was reputed to be still a pristine offshore reserve.

Next episode:
Hluhluwe and Mtubatuba

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Last updated: December 20, 1999