Wednesday, 28 December 2016

South Africa – Swimming with the Sharks

December 15

Hello everyone!




Creatures belonging to our planet are often associated with films. If I say gorilla, you’ll say King Kong. If I say lion, you’ll probably think Lion King. If I say shark…

There are of course many types of shark. That film focuses on the Great White shark, the most feared around. So does this blog, as today I went up close and personal with them. Possibly a little too close for comfort…

A brave soul entering the cage
Sharks can be found all along South Africa’s sea border. Great Whites are found on the western side, where the Atlantic water is cooler; Bull sharks and Hammerheads are located in the eastern waters, which are warmed by the Indian Ocean currents. The place to see sharks is near Gansbaai, a fishing village about 160km from Cape Town.

Most boats will leave fairly early in the morning to search for sharks. In conjunction with my location in Cape Town, this meant a 3:45am collection from my hostel to ensure that all boaters were picked up and arrived in Gansbaai by 7:30am. A quick breakfast and film followed before we boarded the Apex Predator.

The boat which about 30 of us jumped on to go shark cage diving

A fifteen-minute boat ride took us to a body of water which seemed unnervingly close to the shore.

Not more than a few hundred metres away from the beach

Sharks aren’t sitting and waiting for people to ogle them. They need to be attracted to the boat. The crew use a secret ‘chum’ mixture (we were assured there’s no shark product in it), as well as a foam rubber seal called Gladys. 

The creation of 'chum'

Ol' Gladys

Oh, and a massive tuna head. Not called Gladys.

Ol' Tuna

Even though they should be fairly visible, being up to six-and-a-half metres in length (about four of you), they don’t play the game straight away. We saw a fin almost immediately but it took the best part of an hour for the first Great White to venture close.

The shark is over there somewhere, I promise!

And what a sight. About three metres in length and probably weighing more than a human could ever do (they weigh up to a quite frankly ridiculous 2000 – yes, two thousand – kilos), they move gracefully and slowly through the water…

The first Great White

…unless there’s a giant tuna head on offer.


Witnessing the sharks from the relative safety is one thing. I wanted to see these strangely alluring creatures on their terms – in the water.

All that is between you and the shark are those bars - it is safe!

To do this, eight people at a time don wetsuits and pop into a cage. Before you panic, the cage is extensively tied to the boat and secured on the top as well as all other sides. As we were to discover, hardly any of a shark’s head can fit through the bars.

Once in, you bob underwater when instructed, holding your
breath to see the sharks close up

After watching the first two groups have great success seeing up to three sharks, it was my group’s turn. The water, being from the Atlantic, was a chilly 14°C. The sharks decided they’d had enough after a couple of fly-bys, meaning we bobbed in the blue for longer than the other two groups.

It was bone-shakingly cold even with a wetsuit

A shark approaching the cage

We were told to be patient as we wouldn’t get out until one more shark pass. Unfortunately I haven't been sent the video of what happened, so I'll try to explain. 

It happened very quickly so it’s difficult to accurately describe it from under the water. I saw a head, with open jaws bearing individual and triangular teeth, storming towards the man next to me. We backed off to the rear of the cage. It seemed like the nose ever-so-slightly peeped through the bars but nothing else. The guy next to me was convinced more of the head poked through the gaps. Either way, it was a little bit scary but an amazing thing to witness with my own eyes.

They look similar to dolphins from above but behave slightly differently...

That was my time down under with the Great Whites. Whilst watching them violently attack the helpless tuna head from the top deck, the crew started telling us some amazing facts about these fish (they’re not mammals!). Many of the sharks are tagged for logging purposes; one Great White swam from near Cape Town to the western coast of Australia…and back. 20,000 kilometres in about 9 months. Amazing.

Amazing is an appropriate word to describe this experience. It really does take your breath away: in a literal sense in that you have to hold your breath underwater whilst observing the sharks; in a metaphorical sense because it is something special to be so close to such a mysterious creature.

We saw 9 Great Whites - there were 5 the previous day.
The record for one outing with this company is 27!

This is definitely an experience I’ll never forget. Being an arm’s length away from one of nature’s fiercest predators is incredible. Just don’t stick your arm out to measure it…

These signs are present on most South African beaches. Reassuring
or unnerving - you decide...

Love you all


Sunday, 18 December 2016

South Africa – A metaphor for apartheid

December 14

South Africa is currently a country politically divided, with its president, Jacob Zuma, currently in the midst of a corruption battle. However, South Africa has had its fair share of division and segregation over the years. One of the most visible examples of this is a place called Robben Island, an island with a circumference of just 12 kilometres but hundreds of stories of hardship.

Robben Island prison

You’ve probably heard of this island before. It’s where Nelson Mandela, the globally-known figure who became the first black President of South Africa, spent 18 years of his life, refusing to negotiate with the South African leaders as he didn’t want his freedom to come at the price of recognising the racist government as acceptable.

Mandela's cell from the outside

Visitors aren't allowed in Mandela's cell anymore because some
bright spark stole the spoon he used for 18 years

Yet this was not just a prison for one man. Up to 1500 prisoners were based on this island, situated 11km north of Cape Town, at its peak capacity. It also has significance which reaches beyond those 18 years spent here by Mandela.

The boat leaves from the V&A Waterfront

The island has had other uses, ranging from protection of Cape Town during World War 2 (as shown by the battery below, which needed 11 men to operate it) to isolating those suffering from leprosy at the turn of the 20th century. Foreshadowing what was to come sixty years later, lepers were segregated according to gender and race.

The gun battery

Its main use has generally been as a prison. Since the 14th century, in fact. The Dutch were keen on holding political leaders from conquered lands as far away as the East Indies on the island. It became owned by the British when their empire took permanent control of the Cape Town area in 1814.

Entrance to Robben Island

More recently and infamously, it was used to house ‘black’ and ‘coloured’ political prisoners and hardened criminals. Women and white people associated with these crimes were kept elsewhere due the segregationist policies of apartheid. The first jobs of those housed here was, with a sickening similarity to other concentration camps, to build their own maximum security chambers.

One of the many 'sections' prisoners were divided into

The first political prisoners were taken in in 1962, with Mandela admitted in 1964 due to his supposed attempt to overthrow the state through his work with the ANC. His number – 466/64 – reflects that he was the 466th prisoner taken in on Robben Island during 1964.

A photo of Mandela in his cell

As I’ve mentioned, this place is more than Mandela. Many others who became important and famous politicians in South Africa – including their current leader, Mr Zuma himself – spent time incarcerated on Robben Island.

Those whose ‘crimes’ were smaller were placed in group cells. These housed up to 30 in a large room until 1978, when the government allowed the incarcerated to have bunk beds. The occupancy then increased to 50 per room.

An example of a cell pre-1978...

...and post-1978.

Many of the more politically active prisoners were isolated in individual cells and made to dig limestone on Robben Island, initially for the island’s roads but then ultimately as a punishment. All got permanent eye damage and many eventually suffered from lung cancer.

The limestone quarry on Robben Island

When he returned in 1995, five years after becoming a free man, Mandela put a rock in the quarry. Since then, every former inmate who’s returned has added a rock, leading to the small pile of stones visible at the entrance of the quarry.

The pile of stones is at the entrance to the quarry

Rather than focus on the negatives of apartheid, the tour you are obliged to undertake by going to Robben Island focuses on the positive stories that come out of it. I’m not convinced this conveys the horror of what so many had to submit to in order to protect their cause. Only the unscripted responses from the guides give you an insight into the difficulties the prisoners must have faced, for example having to shower with sea water every day and the fact that the youngest detainee was just 13 years old.

Our guide showing us how food rations were
decided by race

Those guides know so much about the happenings on Robben Island because they were there in previous times. Our guide was Jama, who would have previously been known as 951/77. He served five years of his twenties on Robben Island for organising protests in his high school. Their presence and emotion when speaking off script are a much better indicator of this scar of South Africa’s past.

Jama explaining how food was cooked and delivered

Of course, people and counties must be given the opportunity to prove and redeem themselves. Following a change of policy initiated by FW de Klerk, the last political prisoners were released in 1991 and all criminals had been removed from Robben Island by 1996. Spending time there clearly impacted all of those imprisoned; Mandela described Robben Island as a university from what the political activists learnt from each other.

The words of a man reflecting on his time on Robben Island

It’s quite bizarre that this outpost is now a money-spinner for Cape Town, with thousands visiting a site where many died or lost a significant chunk of their lives with justification. I guess it’s better described as a memorial rather than a tourist attraction. It gives visitors a better understanding of an atrocity which plunged South Africa into relative isolation for decades and ruined thousands of lives.

In many ways, Robben Island is a metaphor for apartheid: separated, divided and isolated from the rest. In what is still a relatively young democracy, South Africa has a permanent reminder of its nasty past just over 10 kilometres from Cape Town. Jacob Zuma spent 10 years of his life on Robben Island. It would be worth him remembering the principles behind those sacrifices, which certainly didn’t involve swimming pools and cronyism. I can’t imagine he learnt that whilst digging limestone on Robben Island.

Political activism is still alive in post-apartheid South Africa

Love you all


Thursday, 15 December 2016

South Africa – The Mother City’s Majestic Mountain

December 13

We get an awesome four weeks of holiday at Christmas. To kick off my month of travelling, I headed to the city synonymous with this.

Recognise it?
Getting from Lilongwe to Cape Town, known as the Mother City, is no easy task. It’s actually Lilongwe-Blantyre-Johannesburg-Cape Town, and took 14 hours door-to-door.

I have plenty of time to explore Cape Town but had one mission to accomplish at first light: climbing Table Mountain.

Table Mountain was recently voted one of the 'New 7 Wonders of Nature',
along with others such as Iguazu Falls and Jeju Island 

The mountain dominates the city, casting much of it in shadow depending on the time of day. Its tallest point is 1088m – higher than anywhere in Wales.

The shadow cast over eastern Cape Town by Table Mountain

Apparently it’s also rather dangerous to climb. I read before starting that more people die climbing Table Mountain than Everest. There are mitigating factors to that, such as the fact that many, many more people climb the South African mountain than the world’s highest, but it’s still an interesting statistic. Most people take a cable car to the top but you are in the hands of the gods for that – it’s often closed owing to the high winds which whip over and around the table.

A view of Table Mountain from the boat returning from Robben Island

That wind and various other geographical factors result in the top often being blanketed in a shroud of cloud: the ‘tablecloth’. There are legends attached to the cloud. One example is that an old Dutch pirate was challenged to a pipe-smoking match by the devil, with the results of the duel being the cloud.

That is one smokey pipe

There's your science, folks!
To beat the summer heat (yes it’s summer here), it’s advised to scale Table Mountain early in the day. I took that advice to heart and was at the lower cable car at 6am, which is also the starting place for the most common hiking trail: Platteklip Gorge.

My 'gentle' hiking trail for the morning

Being very early, it was pretty chilly with a light breeze moving along the gorge.

The Platteklip Gorge

This was until about a third of the way up the steep 3km trail, when Mother Nature decided she didn’t want people climbing the main mountain of the Mother City. A gale started flying down the ravine.

No need to worry about sunburn at this point

A few groups of people passed me coming down. Apart from one, all said they had turned back as it was too dangerous. Naturally, I listened to the one who had scaled the gorge and continued into the gust.

Visibility: low

It was also slippery and visibility began to dip. It reminded me of abandoning my family and scaling Snowdon as a child. I never felt it was dangerous but it was challenging at times. The slightly poetic description that came to mind (not my best, teacher is on holiday remember) was that I was enveloped by a waterfall of wind.

The final ascent on Platteklip Gorge

Suddenly, about 50 metres from the end of the trail, the wind relented and the stony path dried.

The end of Platteklip Gorge
 Of course, being a plateau on top means that you’re not at the ‘peak’ of the mountain. That’s another hour-and-a-bit from your starting point on the plateau. I decided to head towards the upper cable car station, during which time the cloud eased and I was rewarded with some stunning vistas.

View of the Atlantic Ocean

View of the eastern side of Cape Town

What I didn’t expect to see was a family of dassies – the closest living mammal to an elephant.

Closest relative to the elephant - maybe not closest in size...

These are amazing animals – they have collapsible ribcages so can squeeze through small gaps to escape their predators. How cool is that?!

Without those collapsible ribs, they would struggle to get through this gap

Back to the mountain. An at times tough but rewarding climb made the views even more satisfying. A great way to kick off my time in Cape Town.

Love you all