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Far Side of the World - South Africa 2019

Discussion in 'Member Trip Reports' started by Sushi Boy, Apr 30, 2019.

  1. Sushi Boy

    Sushi Boy DAM CHUMmer

    After a particularly hectic few weeks at work, GWNDWN, MCLOT, Seaagg05 and I met up at IAH on Good Friday eve. The first leg of our excursion was a flight to London. Sleeping (or not) as best we could on the overnight, we landed late morning at Heathrow. Storing our bags at the airport, we headed out into the city since we had a 10ish hour layover.

    Richard went to visit his grandfather while the rest of us went to Piccadilly to explore around. In true CHUM fashion, our first stop was at a pub for a few pints. After that we stretched our legs a bit by seeing Trafalgar Square, Downing Street, the nearby military barracks with mounted horsemen guarding the entrance (although MCLOT had a slightly more colourful description for them...), the London Eye, and Big Ben and Parliament, sadly both clad in scaffolding for renovation. Finishing up with a walk along the Thames, we then headed back to Heathrow to catch our late evening flight to Cape Town.

    Our boarding passes for both legs had been issued in Houston, so we picked up our stowed carry-ons and went straight to clear security. Lo and behold, our boarding passes wouldn’t scan, so we headed to the British Airways desk to sort out why. Much to our dismay, we were told that our flight had been cancelled that night and rescheduled for the following morning. Ugh. We were all losing steam. Fortunately, BA gave us vouchers for dinner, breakfast, and 4 hotel rooms at the Sofitel that was on-site at Heathrow. We propped our eyelids open with toothpicks and went to check in at the hotel. After A LOT of walking (on-site may have been stretching the truth, more like “a long hike away”), we checked in, dropped our stuff, and “enjoyed” an uninspiring buffet dinner, compliments of BA. We were dog-a$$ tired at that point, but not too tired to have a last pint (or two) at the hotel bar before calling it a very, very long day.
  2. Sushi Boy

    Sushi Boy DAM CHUMmer

    The next day, things fell back into place and by late morning we were on our 11-hour flight from London to Cape Town. Mid-flight, I looked out the window. We were over the Sahara. Something I’ve heard of my whole life, but had never seen with my own eyes. Fantastic.

    We arrived in Cape Town a little after 11 pm and were happy to find the world’s most efficient airport. Within 30 mins we’d cleared immigration, collected our bags and picked up our rent car. A quick champagne toast at the Airbnb & we called it a night.

    On Sunday, we slept in a bit and then got up to check out Cape Town. The two major tourist attractions, Table Mountain and Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela had been held prisoner) were both closed due to high winds. It’s just as well that Robben Island was closed. MCLOT was put off that they were charging for admission. He was expecting Free Nelson Mandela. We walked around the waterfront for a while, saw the sea lions, and then headed over to the Groot Constantia winery (est 1685!) for a bottle of Pinotage and some tasty smoked springbok carpaccio. After that we did a small pub crawl around Cape Town, much to the amusement of a few Uber drivers, and got to experience what being hit by a sandstorm feels like when you’re walking from pub to pub. Don’t need to do THAT again... The last bar was a little smoky, so we called it a night.

    Monday came with an early wake-up call - 5 a.m. but what a day. I’m pretty sure if the trip had ended on Tuesday, none of us would have been disappointed. We started off with a 3 hour drive to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point in Africa. We took turns being the southernmost person on the continent, and then we toured the lighthouse, complete with the 71 (somewhat shaky) ladder rungs to get to the top. What a view though! I briefly lost the steering wheel to the van in the parking lot, but by noon we were back on the road heading east. Along the way we were pleased to learn that, because of EU regulations, we’d each be receiving a $675 check from BA due to the flight cancellation in London.

    We had a bit of a scare along the way, thinking that they might not be allowing beer sales because of a holiday, but by 4:00 pm we were pulling into our next stop, Indalu, with enough beer to last a few days, plus 4 bottles of really good back-up wine.
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2019
  3. Sushi Boy

    Sushi Boy DAM CHUMmer

    Indalu is a game reserve. We checked in, unloaded our luggage, and went straight out for a safari drive.

    Before we left the driveway, we’d already seen two elephants and an ostrich. We drove around the reserve in an open-air Toyota seeing a herd of impalas, 4 Cape buffalo, a pregnant rhino (expected to deliver next week), a herd of springboks, who were kind enough to spring up when they ran, showing us where their name comes from, another female rhino with her one month-old baby by her side (so cute!), a big male kudu grazing, and 3 zebras. It was an amazing experience and we didn’t even get to see everything because daylight was disappearing. As we returned to our rooms, though, we got treated to seeing the ostrich spinning and dancing around a field, being playful. She came right up to the truck and posed for us.

    What really made this stay special was that there are only two guest bungalows on the property right now. We had the whole place to ourselves! And as icing on the cake, Gerhard and Kristina, the owners of the property cooked us a South African braii, their version of an outdoor bbq, for dinner that night. It was delicious, and way too much food, and we got to sit around the dinner table listening to their stories about life managing a game reserve. They’re planning to add a luxury restaurant and 10 glamping tents soon, so we were really fortunate to get to spend time here while it’s still small and intimate.

    After a delicious dessert of homemade Malva pudding, we had the night to ourselves and dug into our copious reserves of beer and wine while we enjoyed the stars (and an occasional rain shower).

    Tuesday morning we got up and did a walk with two adult male elephants. We got to stand right beside them, pat their sides and put our hands on their tusks. As we spoke to them and looked them in the eye, they looked back. What did they make of us? We strolled down a dirt (or more like mud, since it was drizzling) path right beside them, learning about elephants from their handlers while we walked. When we got back close to the bungalows, they gave us buckets of chopped up lemons, limes and carrots, and we got to hand feed the elephants. Such a magical way to start a morning. We wrapped up the encounter with a quick photo op and then got on the road to Port Elizabeth, our final stop of the trip.
  4. Sushi Boy

    Sushi Boy DAM CHUMmer

    Wednesday was supposed to be our first day on the water, but we woke to steady rain. The spot where we met the boat was a couple of blocks from the hotel. We had to meet them there at 7:30 am in said rain and load our gear onto the boat, even though they scrubbed the diving for the day, so it would be ready for the rest of the week. We were a little soggy after that and went back to the hotel to change into dry clothes for our plan b option, a driving tour of Addo Elephant National Park. There we saw the same suspects as were at Indalu, but in far greater numbers, plus warthog, meerkat, eland, and lots more that I’ve already forgotten. There were dozens and dozens of elephants, often times right beside our van.

    On Thursday we woke up to blue skies and finally got to head out on the water. The boat is a RIB, with a camera table in the middle and dive gear stashed under that. There was another group of four on the boat in addition to us, plus 3 crew. We loaded up at the harbor and went out looking for sardines. After bouncing around the blue for a while, they spotted something promising, so we dashed over there to see a few gannets (sea birds) diving into the water, sardine hunting behavior. Some penguins were floating on the surface too, so we put on snorkel gear and hopped in the water to try and get some pics. Couldn’t ever get close enough to those, but we tried again a little while later with some seals, having somewhat better luck. Wash, rinse & repeat a few times. There was no ladder on the boat, and hauling yourself over the side of a RIB over and over turns into a pretty good workout. We bounced around the blue a while in the afternoon with no luck finding bait balls, but we did get to see lots of dolphin plus some minke and Bryde’s whales. Some of the folks got to see a humpback breaching in the distance, but I wasn’t so lucky. We tried a couple of dive sites so we could get our dive gear wet, but viz was low at all of them. Finally about 3 pm, we called it a day and headed back to shore.

    The return to shore was one of the more interesting boat exits I’ve ever seen. The captain gunned the engines and headed toward the beach at full speed, to get the boat past the surf zone and onto the sand as quickly as possible. We held on tight and closed our eyes. Before we knew it, the entire RIB was out of the water, and we were stepping onto the beach with our gear. After the guests are off, they winch the boat onto a trailer and then haul it off with a tractor to be stowed for the night.

    That night we had some really good local lamb and beef for a crazy low price at the Coachman and turned in early.
  5. Sushi Boy

    Sushi Boy DAM CHUMmer

    So what’s it like doing the sardine run? For those who went on the Philippines trip, do you remember the dive where we went to find the pigmy sea horses? We went around a point into unprotected waters and bounced like crazy to and from the dive site. It like that, but for 6 or 7 hours a day. There’s no cover on the open boat, and also no ladder. To get back on, you grab onto a rope running along the side, kick like hell with your fins, and (hopefully) haul yourself up over the side. Every. Single. Time you get in the water. And you never know when that will be. It could be in 5 minutes, it could be in 4 hours. If you’re ok being cold, and tired, and hungry, and bored, while you’re bouncing around a seemingly endless ocean waiting for SOMETHING to happen, then the sardine run MIGHT be for you. If any of that seems remotely unpleasant, think very seriously before signing up. One of the German divers got seasick about two hours into the trip today, and the other six hours on the water weren’t very fun for him. There is no returning to port. You’re out there for the duration.

    Soooo...Friday morning found us bouncing around that endless sea. It was grey and breezy. Our wetsuits were still damp from the day before and there was no action. We looked for promising signs, we bounced, we drank hot tea from our thermoses, we bounded, we tried (unsuccessfully) to keep our eyes open, we bounced, we got chilled, we bounced, blue water, slate grey water, green water, bounce bounce bounce bounce.....

    Then suddenly, IT WAS ON! Johann, the captain, pushed the throttles all the way forward. He had spotted common dolphins (the herders of the sardines) and we were racing toward them. We were hanging on to whatever we could as the rubber boat hurled across the waves. Other dolphins were heading in the same direction, jumping sometimes over the waves right beside us. Gannets, the diving birds, cruised above us, on the same path, matching our speed. None of them were following us. We were following them. We were just observers of a well-practiced dance, a maritime feast, and nobody wanted to be the last one to the table.

    The engines are gunning, it’s loud. We’re hanging on, barely. Johann turns his head, “get ready, get ready!” Where’s my mask & snorkel? Pull my hood over my head. Wiggle my fins on, one foot, then the other, while keeping one hand on the rope so I don’t bounce out of the boat. Eyes dart around for my camera. There it is, just out of each. Ryan hands it to me at the last second. Johann throttles back, quickly. “Ready? One, two, three, GO!” We back roll into the water, snorkels in our mouths. Instinctively, I inhale after hitting the water. Bad idea with a snorkel. Cough cough. Float to the surface. Exhale. Hard. Look around. We’re floating in our wetsuits, cameras in hand. The boat moves away from the group. Glance up to find it. Johann - “Don’t look at me! Look down! Look down!” And there it is. Sunlight filtering through blue water. The noise, the bouncing, the adrenaline, they all fade away.

    We watch, straining into the blue to see what’s there. And then a jet streaks across our field of vision. A dolphin, coming to see who these clumsy interlopers are. Snap the shutter on the camera, hoping for a shot. First one dolphin, seconds later a pack of three. A minute later two shoot across at another angle. Then a solo one from another direction. Snap snap, switch to video. What’s the best way to catch it all? It’s a crapshoot. The action fades. The DM herds us back to the boat. Clamber back on board. “Keep your fins on! Don’t remove your mask!” Johann guns it, doing his best to follow the action going on beneath us. Bounce, bounce, throttle back fully. “Get ready! One, two, three, GO!” Over the edge again. Splash. (Remembering not to inhale through the snorkel underwater this time). Face down. Cameras at the ready. Zip, there they are! Dolphins! Holy cow...we’re really here...this is really happening.

    This repeats a few times. An hour? Two? Finally we’ve chased the run as far as our fuel permits.

    We turn and head toward a dive site that will put us closer to home base. We finally get to eat our lunch on the way - sandwiches, held with one hand, clutched close to our chests as our backs are toward the front of the boat, so the spray coming over the gunwales doesn’t get our food wet. The other hand holds onto whatever is closest.

    We reach the dive site, Riy Bank. The boat’s barely stopped moving and they’re helping us into our gear. “Ready? One, two, three, go!” The DM has a SMB and we follow the line down, congregating at about 50’. The dive is along a wall, the water’s green, 30ish’ of viz, 60 degree water temp. Lots of reef fish. We spot some shy sharks (really, that’s what they’re named) hiding in the reef and some stingrays. A good dive, leisurely, a nice change of pace. After about 30 mins, we head back to the surface, gear down, and point the boat toward shore.
    wanderwoman likes this.
  6. Sushi Boy

    Sushi Boy DAM CHUMmer

    Johann drives the boat back onto the beach again and it’s well after 4:00 pm when we step off onto the sand. We’d left before 8:00 am. A full day at sea and the crew had started preparing way earlier than we did. And they still have to break everything down before doing it all over again tomorrow.

    Exhale. Shower. Beers and dinner at Barney’s. Live music, good conversation, and call it a night. This, this was a good day.

    Saturday started out promising, blue skies and flat seas. It turns out though, sardines don’t like flat seas. The bouncing was gone, but the monotony was back. Flat blue seas this way, flat blue seas that was. Motor, motor, motor, nap, motor, motor. Then a little after noon, the fog moved in. It hung around like heavy drapes. Suddenly, Johann guns the engines. Off that way! Dolphins! Sure enough, hundreds that we can see, many more underneath, slicing through the waves, jumping now and then. The crew positions our boat in front of a huge pod and we back roll in, cameras in hand. Then...nothing. We can see their fins popping up all around us, but putting our heads underwater, we can’t see a thing. Maybe a foot or two in front of us, at best. We clamber back on board, reposition the boat in front of more dolphins. Splash, look, wait. Nothing. We know they’re there, probably 3000 strong, but without sunlight we can’t see a thing underwater. We console ourselves by taking some surface pics of them dancing in the waves. Pods on every side of the boat for as far as we can see. Stunning, no matter what. But the fog wasn’t lifting and the afternoon was trickling away. After a quick dive at Evan’s Peak, we decided to head in and call it a day.

    A few beers on the patio watching the sun set over Port Elizabeth, followed by a delicious meal of kudu steaks and Pinotage at Sticky Fingers, a small family-run place tucked back in the neighborhoods, finished up the evening nicely.

    Sunday. Today SUCKED, plain and simple. Big seas, small boat. When we weren’t getting ponded by the waves, we were getting soaked by them. Many times both at once. For 7 1/2 hours. And no payoff. While snorkeling, GWNDWN caught a brief glimpse of penguins wrangling a bait ball, Seaagg05 saw some fish scales floating in the water column, a sure sign there had been something feasting on a bait ball, but that was it. Some days the ocean gives, some days she doesn’t. Today, she wasn’t being the slightest bit charitable.
  7. Sushi Boy

    Sushi Boy DAM CHUMmer

    Feeling sore and tired, we covered our hotel rooms in wet dive gear, hoping it would dry before the flight home. A quick shower, some sundowners on the patio, and then we strolled back to Barney’s, the closest restaurant to the hotel. Cold beers and lamb curry or schnitzel gradually brought some laughter back. We toasted to the trip and headed back to crash.

    So here we sit, winging it to Cape Town on our first leg of a very long return journey, Castle Lager in hand (except for MCLOT, he’s extending the trip for a few more days). Did we get to see everything we’d hoped for on this trip? Nope. That sardine bait ball seemed to hang just out of grasp the whole time. That’s the nature of events like the sardine run. It’s not Disney World. Sometimes the animals show up. Sometimes they don’t. All we can do is try. Did we get to have some amazing experiences in a beautiful country with some fantastic traveling companions? Hell yeah. It takes a certain kind of crazy to sign up for a trip like this, roll with the punches, and find the fun in getting bounced around in a rubber dinghy for hour after hour, day after day. I’m glad these guys are that kind of crazy. Thanks for coming along y’all! This was a very, very memorable adventure.

    Once we get back, I think all of us are diving headlong into work, and I know I, for one, have A LOT of photos to edit. We’ll get them posted, but it may take a while.

    For those who want to know what we did, dibba dibba dibba d-dat’s all folks! For anyone interested in possibly making a similar trip, I’ll post some thoughts below that might come in handy.
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2019
  8. Sushi Boy

    Sushi Boy DAM CHUMmer

    Things I’m glad I brought:
    A waterproof jacket for the boat, that fits over your wetsuit (although the full-length Surf-Fur wasn’t the best option for these conditions)
    A Buff (they did give us one as swag, but don’t count on that)
    An 8 mil wetsuit. VERY happy with mine.
    Sunglasses & a hat that won’t blow off
    A weight harness system (make sure the DM know where it can be lifted vs where the dump handles are...)
    A compact camera system (GoPros work GREAT). Strobes really weren’t necessary and take up valuable space, on the boat and in luggage)
    A dry bag
    A travel luggage scale
    Have I said Dramamine?

    Things I wish I’d had:
    Sunscreen (big thanks to all who gave me some of theirs)
    An add-on zoom lens for land pics.
    Tropical weight dive gloves. (Richard’s suggestion & a good one. Cold water gloves are overkill.)

    I brought way too much American cash with me, and never ended up converting it. ATMs were easy to find in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth and an easy option for getting Rand. Can’t vouch for more remote locales some of the sardine run operators leave from. Credit cards were widely accepted, so we really didn’t use that much cash while we were there.

    I was very pleased with Pro Dive as an operator. They had good, well-configured boats and very capable crew. They worked very hard to provide top-notch service and everyone worked together as a team. Last year, they ran two boats for the sardine run. This year they had four. There’s a reason for that. They do also offer more remote sardine run trips, further up the coast & later in the season.

    We picked the Port Elizabeth trip specifically because it’s a big city. There were lots of amenities, good plan B options nearby, plenty of restaurants and bars, many of them walking distance from the hotel, and back-up diving on nearby reefs if the run had been a complete bust.

    The Courtyard was a great hotel. The operator booked it as part of the package, but we would’ve been hard-pressed to find a better one. Tasty breakfasts were included, it was only blocks from where the boats launched, and all of the rooms had an ocean view.

    As usual, I’m sure there’s a ton of stuff I forgot. Guys, please add to the thread and fill in what I left out.
  9. Sushi Boy

    Sushi Boy DAM CHUMmer

  10. Heidi Ho

    Heidi Ho CHUM Fan

    Wowie...what a great report...and capped off by Jimmy, to boot :)

    I felt every bounce in that damn boat - thanks so much for sharing your great adventure!
    Sushi Boy likes this.
  11. McLOT

    McLOT Tiger Shark

    Great trip report!

    And it ain’t over yet......
    Seaagg05 and Sushi Boy like this.
  12. Hawkeye Mark

    Hawkeye Mark Iowa Hawkeye Fan

    Sounds like you had a good trip. I lived in that part of the world for about 6 months in 1975 before I moved to Houston. Went back in 2010 when my nephew and family lived in Botswana. Never got a chance to go that far south as spent most all the time in Joburg(had to work) and over at Kruger Park. In 2010 we were in the northern part of the country near the border. One day would like to go back and see Cape Town and the Garden Route.
    Sushi Boy likes this.
  13. Sushi Boy

    Sushi Boy DAM CHUMmer

    Well the bright side of a rainy Saturday is it gave me time to upload my trip pics in the media gallery.

    The underwater pics aren't quite what I would've hoped for, but they are what they are.

    At the end of the gallery, I posted a few videos. Editing video is NOT my forte, but they're all fairly short

    As always, you'll get a better view of the pics by clicking into the first one and navigating through with the <- & -> arrows, rather than looking at the thumbnails.
    Lakediver likes this.
  14. Sushi Boy

    Sushi Boy DAM CHUMmer

    Seaagg05 likes this.

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