Monday, October 31, 2016

Stuck in the Sand: Diving Sodwana Bay, South Africa

Stuck in the Sand: Sodwana Bay

    It is slow season for diving in Sodwana right now so we scored a great deal for accommodations at Triton Dive Lodge. The attached dive shop gained fame for being the ones to find the once thought extinct Coelecanthe. They found it 113meters (that’s nearly 350ft!) down in caves at a site named Jesse’s Canyon. While we did not plan to do extreme tech diving here to those depths, we did come to see the beautiful coral reefs at recreational diving depths. I dove here once before about 6 years ago and saw dolphins, a whale shark, nudibranchs, and all sorts of fish among the reef. So I was eager to come back. But first we had to get there.

Deep sandy roads in Sodwana
    We saw the Triton Dive Lodge sign, but looked for any other way to get there. Our little Ford Fiesta would not like the deep sand of the road past the sign. But after a few failed attempts at finding another route including accidentally driving into the local elementary school, as it was releasing all of its students, we decided to make a run for it on the sand road. The first turn was pretty deep sand but the little car made it through. The next kilometer was a bit terrifying as the car was only centimeters from bottoming out on the raised sand in between the deep tracks. Finally we saw the lodge and as we made the final turn we hit the softest sand yet. The underpowered front wheel drive decided then to spin and spin until it dug the front of the car to sand level. Luckily we were right in front of the lodge and you could tell this happens often because they jumped into action and had us hooked up to a tractor in no time. 

Porcelain Crab
  Once we heard that lodging was 25% off we upgraded to the two bedroom chalet which turned out to be quite nice, especially since we both came down almost immediately with the travelers bug. So while we were both down for a couple of days at least we had a nice comfortable space to get over it. Unfortunately we were missing some prime diving. But this stuff happens when you are on the road for a while so we tried to rest up, got some movies in, and just relaxed a bit. 

Giant Clam
   After 24 hours I was feeling up to try a dive. I had forgotten just how much of a scene the dive beach was here in Sodwana. All the shops use sturdy RIB’s or zodiacs. They trailer them down to the waters edge, then hook up the trailer to a tractor, who then takes it in to the water with the help of all of us. When you get it deep enough for the captain to lower the engine he yells for everyone to jump in. You quickly pass out lifejackets then hold on for dear life and he guns it through the breaking wave zone. There were some head high breaking waves this day but they use their speed to maneuver around the impact zones and make it out past the breakers. They pause over the dive sight, and gear everyone up, then on the count of 3 everyone does a backwards roll off into the water. 

Blue spotted stingray
  After the dive you surface and flag the boat down. They grab your gear and you propel yourself out and up onto the boat. Once again the lifejackets come out and go on. Then you look for dolphins or whale sharks or whales on your way back. Again you hold on for joy as the captain rockets back through the breaking waves and slides up on the beach at top speed. It can’t be easy for the boats but they seem to take this daily beating and keep on going according to the dive guides. 

New nudibranch in Sodwana
  On this day the conditions were choppy, wavy, not very good vis, overcast, and incredibly surgy. It was a lot like how I imagine diving in a washing machine would feel like. So not very good for photos since in the time it takes to focus on the subject you would be swept ten feet away by the surge. There were plenty of fish of all sizes, some big schools, colorful coral, and a couple of nudibranchs. I would love to catch this place on a really calm sunny day. 

Triton Dive Shop Prices:  Gear Rental $20, Scuba Dive $28

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Driving the Wild Coast of South Africa

Lighthouses and Sulphur Springs on The Wild Coast of South Africa

Lighthouse Keeper and me
From East London to Durban Highway 2 winds its way through rolling green hills dotted with colorful houses as it travels a thousand kilometers through the lesser traveled parts of South Africa. Towns like Port St John dot the rugged coastline here which has been nicknamed the ‘Wild Coast.’ This is where the famous Sardine run happens in June and July. Exploring around Port St Johns I made my way up to an old lighthouse overlooking the coast and was told by the lighthouse keeper that when the sardine run happens he can see it all from his window; huge schools of sardines, dolphins, whales, birds, and even sharks. But in all the other months of the year the Wild Coast is more famous for its network of hiking trails. 

Wild Coast of South Africa
The transkei hike follows the coastline and connects the small port towns. It is a very popular hike with backpackers and comes complete with overnight accommodations, waterfalls, incredible scenery, lighthouses, and cold beers waiting at the backpackers lodge at the end. Further in towards the mountainous country of Lesotho, hikers find another delight in the Drakensburg Mountain National Park. 

    Of course getting to and from these areas can be a challenge. Its seems like road work is never ending in the region so prepare to be stopped throughout the day. And driving at night is heavily discouraged, as there are goats and cows all alongside the road. Even during the day you have to keep a sharp eye out for crossing animals.

    But to get off the beaten path, see something new, and experience the Zulu part of Africa traveling the wild coast can be an enriching experience. Here the local people still speak with clicks in their language and visit Sulphur springs like I would visit the doctor. Not wanting to pass up that experience Heidi and I drove down the bumpy dirt road towards the Sulphur springs near Port St. Johns, not really knowing what to expect. Small kids chased the car down the road (turns out they wanted to be compensated for being a hired ‘security’). We were greeted in a rocky clearing by the mom of the village with her small daughter. She said she would take us up to the spring, then show us the mud cave after. 

Sulphur mud facial with Heidi
I was impressed with her ability to scramble up the side of the rocky cliff that was a bit tough for us in our flip flops. A cloudy pool was at the top of this rocky hillside with several locals around soaking their feet. A small offshoot was being used to dip a cup into. The mom got us a cup and told us to drink and it will clean out our stomach. Even with a bit of a head cold ‘cleaning out our stomach’ didn’t sound too comfortable to either of us so we offered to smell it and acknowledge that it did indeed smell like Sulphur. After this we went back down the same steep slope to go underneath the rocky hill where a large cave was filled with white mud. The mom got some in her hand and carefully smeared it on my face and then Heidi’s. This could have been where spas got the idea for mud facials because my skin felt great after letting this cake on for a while. The last thing we did before paying our guide and tipping our young ‘security’ guard, was to kneel down in front of another outflowing of Sulphur gas and inhale. This is supposed to clear up any sinus illness. I’m not sure if this is the culprit but I did start my road to recovery around this time. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Tips on Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa

Best way to visit Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa
Close encounter
Tip 1: Stay overnight at the parks rest area. They have tent camping options for $20 or fancier bungalow type chalets. This lets you enter the game drive area at 5:30am in the morning as opposed to when they open the main gate at 6am for people staying outside the park. You can also have dinner at the restaurant there until 8:30pm, visit the hide overlooking the waterhole at any time, and listen to hyenas howl or lions roar deep into the night from your campsite. There is also a swimming pool for overnight guests only. This is perfect for the hot middle part of the day in between game drives. 

Lion with his kill
Night Game Drive Success
Tip 2: Go on a night game drive. At $35 it is well worth being able to see the park after dark. This not only gives you a chance to see the nocturnal animals in the park, which there are many, but also gives you access to a park ranger who can give you all kinds of insider tips and knowledge about the animals and the park itself. For example, I learned that most of the lions had been removed in order to save the more valuable buffalo that they were eating. The buffalo here are a healthy line and disease free which makes them very valuable to other game parks across the continent who are having trouble with foot and mouth disease in their buffalo stock. Also there is a discount if you have a WILDcard.

Kudu Fighting: Africa pics for sale
Tip 3: Self Drive in the park. It is much more economical to rent a car, drive to Addo and then follow the well-marked road system through the park as you look for animals. This gives you the flexibility to stop and spend more time at overlooks or for photographs and to just go at your own pace. Spend enough time here and it is amazing how many animals will walk right past your window. We had elephant and buffalo herds walk by, and a huge male lion eating a buffalo just outside the window. (That was a $30,000 meal for that lion!)

Tip 4: Don’t stay in Spekboom Tented Camp unless you are fully prepared to be self-sufficient. A couple of young guys checked in at reception and were staying inside the park at this tented camp but were unaware of the time limitations. It’s a 30 minute drive to the tented camp from the rest area where the shop and restaurant are. You have to be in the camp by 6:30pm, before it gets dark. This means you would have to eat dinner around 5 at the restaurant during prime game drive time and you wouldn’t have access to night drives either. There is also no electricity there. It could be a very cool place to soak up the sounds of the park at night if you are prepared.

Spring time is baby time in Addo
Tip 5: Drive a little more. The more you put yourself out there in the park the higher your chances of seeing something fun. Drive all the way South, don’t just look at the northern section. South is where we found most of the elephant herds, lions, hartebeest, zebra, and big ground birds. There are some big open areas of savanna in the southern part of the park that remind me of the plains of Serengeti.

   Tip 6: Stop at a waterhole and watch for a long time. Have a little car picnic, see who comes and goes from the waterhole. Different elephant interactions can be quite entertaining and enlightening here. We watched as dominant bulls were displaced by nursing mothers who would run off after another male knocks over their baby. We saw tiny baby elephants getting used to their trunks by swinging them around and around. I watched as one elephant would stick its trunk into the mouth of another trying to steal a quick snack. And you can start to see the hidden language that the elephants share and that defines their relationships. 

Addo's famous residents
Getting real close
Tip 7: Stop in at the museum/learning center. Located in the same building as the game drive reception, this is a great place to get a basic history of this area of South Africa, as well as of the park itself. There could have very easily been just farms here like everywhere else in the area, but a few forward thinking conservationalist put in tremendous effort preserving the last 16 of the areas elephants.

Every time I come here to South Africa I have made it a point to stop at Addo National Park. You can check out the blog post from six years ago from Addo here.  If you are driving from Johannesburg to Cape Town it will be right on you way and is a can’t miss. 

village weavers around our camp
Buffalo kicking up dust

Close up of a zebra's stripes
Secretary bird on the hunt