Tuesday, 25 February 2014

South African Land and Sea Safaris

I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa early in the morning on Sunday February 16th.  After a brief wait at the airport (which allowed me time to pickup a local sim and some minutes for my phone and a local data plan for Internet for my ipad) my shuttle driver arrived and whisked me away to the beautiful Belvedere Estate on the outskirts of Johannesburg.  I was welcomed by the manager, Damien and by Charlie (short for Charlotte) who would soon become my awesome travel buddy and dive buddy for the duration of my time in South Africa.  Charlie showed me to our shared suite and we got to know eachother while we had a relaxed day by the pool.  That afternoon I also met Fern Perry, the tour guide and shark diving expert who organized the whole trip (she also owns/manages Lutwala Dive on Gili Trawangan, Indonesia).  In the evening we were treated to a traditional South African braai (aka barbecue) in the outside area by the pool and we met a few others who would be joining us for the first part of our tour, a 4 day camping tour to Kruger National Park with Nomad Adventure Tours which departed at early the next morning.

Day 1 Johannesburg to Greater Kruger National Park
In the morning I met the fourth woman on our diving tour, Trish, who is Fern's mom and will be acting as "tour mom" and cook for our tour as well as diving with us.  Our group of four joined 12 others on the Nomad Adventures Kruger Big 5 camping tour.  We travelled through the Province of Mpumalanga en route to the breathtaking Kruger National Park.  We entered the greater Kruger National Park in the afternoon and after quickly setting up our tents before we headed out in a 4x4 open vehicle to enjoy an evening game drive, sunset viewing with a nice local drink, Amurula (like Irish Cream liqueur but made from Marula fruit), followed by a night safari on the way back to the camp where we saw some local dancing and had another braai dinner. 

Day 2 Kruger National Park
We had a full day game drive from the large Nomad Truck.  The truck provided us with an elevated view of the park and we saw lots of wildlife including African elephants, white rhinoceri, hippos, buffalo, impala, kudu, wild boar, leopard tortoises, and lots of birdlife.  After spending a full day in the Kruger National Park, we make our way back to our accommodation in the greater Kruger area.

Day 3 Kruger National Park We spent the full day game viewing planned in an open 4x4 safari truck inside Kruger National Park exploring some of the loops that the larger Nomad truck was not permitted to drive on.  We saw lots of elephants, zebra, a lot of vultures sunning themselves on sand spits, and some girraffes.  We also had some very up close and personal encounters with rhinos, buffalo, and storks.

Day 4 Panorama Route to Johannesburg 
The day started very early with a 5:30am morning bushwalk where our excellent guide showed us animal tracks made by leopards, hippos, wild dogs, rhinoceros, and zebras.  After the bush walk we departed the greater Kruger area around 9am to journey back to Johannesburg via the spectacular Panorama Route from which we could see Blyde River Canyon, the 3rd largest canyon in the world.  We stopped at viewpoints at "God’s Window" and the "Three Rondavels" and we also went for a short sightseeing walk at "The Bourke’s Luck Potholes", which have been gradually eroded by the Treur River. We ended up back at the Belvedere Estate at around 7pm and had another braai before falling into bed completely exhausted from the long day.

Day 5 Johannesburg to Sodwana Bay (Triton Dive Centre)
The day started early again with a 6:30am departure from the hotel to do the long drive (~6 hours) to Sodwana Bay where we would start our diving the following morning.  We stayed at the Triton Dive Lodge which was a really cool spot in a forested area with small bungalows along wooden boardwalks.  There was a small pool and a very cool communal kitchen/food storage/prep area with a central braii area (BBQ) and a bar.  It is a great place to chat with other divers, take a look at their photos, and share experiences.

Day 6 Sodwana Bay (Triton Dive Centre)
Yet another early start with a 6:15am morning departure to drive the short distance from the dive lodge to the beach where we set up our gear.  The surf was vicious in Sodwana Bay but our skippers did an excellent job motoring out past the surf to get us to the dive sites.  The boat ride was bumpy but lots of fun!  It was great to get back in the water for some dives again and the reef is quite healthy with many colorful fish, morays, rays, nudibranchs, and I even spotted an octopus.  The big waves were felt with strong swell occurring down to 24m!  This coast of South Africa is WILD!

Day 7 Sodwana Bay (Triton Dive Centre)
Same drill as the day before with an early start, on the beach by 6:30am to set up our gear.  The first dive had amazing topography with swim throughs, canyons, and big vertical walls.  On the trip out to our second dive we spotted a pod of dolphins leaping out of the water so we took the boat over and had a chance to jump in with our masks and fins to swim with the dolphins.  We took our time and swam around watching them and listening to their clicks an whistles as they checked us out.  This was my closest dolphin encounter yet and it was completely magical.  After the dolphins moved on, we headed to the dive site which was also amazing.  We spent nearly an hour on one tiny part of the reef because there were huge schools of snapper and jack which were mesmerizing as they schooled around us.  I love diving in schools of fish, it is so easy to lose track of time and just revel in the many fish swimming above, below, and all around.  Everywhere I looked were more  fish. I absolutely loved the dive.  Just when I thought the day couldn't get any better, the skipper spotted a whale shark on our way back to shore. He took the boat over and we got to get in the water with our masks and fins and swim alongside this gentle giant who was about 8m long.  All in all, it was one of the best days I've ever had diving!

Day 8 Sodwana Bay to Margate (south of Durban)
Another early start but a little bit of a sleep in (to 6am) compared to other days!  We had a relaxed drive south parallel to the coast until we reached Margate.  After a brief stop to grab groceries, beer, and other essentials, we checked into a beautiful little apartment which will be our home for the next 10 days as we dive Protea Banks and Aliwal Shoal... primary goal... to see some SHARKS!

Day 9 Down Day
Today was supposed to be our first baited dive with the sharks (Bull Sharks, Tiger Sharks, Reef Sharks, and maybe even Hammerheads) but unfortunately the wind was up and the coast guard didn't allow boats to go out.  We had a lovely lazy day at the mall, followed by movies and a lovely dinner cooked by Trish (yet again, she is a great cook and has been feeding us amazingly well for the whole tour).  It was nice to have a down day despite our disappointment at not going diving...hopefully tomorrow the weather will cooperate and we can get out there and see some sharks.

Note: The slow internet is again conspiring against me so I will try to upload more photos to this post soon and reorganize the photos.  Here are a few to whet your appetite (I did put more up on Facebook also)

Trish, me, and Fern drinking wine at sunset (from the little bottles)

Spotted Eagle Owl

Dinner entertainment dancing

Very nice toilet/shower block at our campsite
The Nomad Truck
Up close encounters!

African Elephant

The smallest baby elephant!
Charlie and Fern at dinner

bush walk.  This guide told us that elephant poo is something like 95% or 98% vegetation...then he put some in his mouth!!!! eep!


wee frog

Blyde River Canyon

Blyde River Canyon - Bourke's luck potholes

Blyde River Canyon

the Three Rondavels
Me, Fern, Trish, and Charlie at the 3 Rondavals viewpoint

Triton Dive Lodge Bungalow

Sodwana Bay

Charlie and Fern
beautiful eel

yellowtail jacks I think

dental checkup

 Red Snapper School


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