Friday, 6 June 2008

South Africa 2008: Sodwana Bay

I’d always heard that the place to scuba dive in South Africa is Sodwana Bay. It’s about as close to the equator as you can get in SA, and the warm current travels south along the east coast bringing lovely warm water with it. To be honest that’s about all I knew about the place. When I started looking online for a place to stay there I noticed that the pickings were rather slim, and that the emphasis seemed to be a little, uh, rustic. For example, only a couple of the places offered en-suite bathrooms, and a few expected you cook for yourself over open fires. Yes, lovely if that’s what you want, but I was on honeymoon dammit!

I ended up choosing the Sodwana Bay Lodge, as they advertised a “honeymoon cabin”. They also had an on-site dive operator, and good sounding accommodation plus diving packages. I have to say, I was very happy with the place. Our accommodation included dinner and breakfast, and not the one-buffet-suits-all variety either. Breakfast had a bit of a buffet going on, but you could have your eggs or an omelette made to order, and toast and coffee is brought to your table. Dinner is a la carte, and very good too. They also have a good wine list, which while not included in the price was not expensive.

Our room was basic but nice, a spacious thatched bamboo hut with en-suite and veranda. We had a spa tub (I think that is what made it the “honeymoon” cabin) and plenty of hot water, and a kettle for coffee. Our bed was huge and very comfortable, with a decent mosquito net to drape over it (it is a malaria area so you really don’t want to be bitten by mozzies) – you need this as the bamboo isn’t exactly bug-proof! Or soundproof… our neighbours had a toddler and we could hear him whinging and wailing every minute he wasn’t asleep – a bit of a passion killer actually! The bay itself is a marine reserve, so the accommodation is several kilometres away outside the park boundaries. We were disappointed not to be staying on the beach, but our bush view was lovely too.

So, the diving… Milord and I have dived all over Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and in the Red Sea, and I have also dived in Thailand. We agreed that the diving at Sodwana was world-class, better than any diving we have done in Australia and the best we’ve had since meeting in the Red Sea back in 2005. The water is warm (26 deg C when we were there, we didn’t need wetsuits), the reef is close to shore and quite shallow (I didn’t go deeper than 20m) and teeming with life and soft and hard corals. But the best part had to be the service we received from the diving operator. I have never been so spoiled while diving… I didn’t carry a tank once! On our first day a lovely bloke called Thulani took charge of us and from then onward looked after our gear, hooked it up, loaded it on the boat, took it off the boat, washed it and prepped it for the next dive. On the boat the driver and dive master help you into your gear, and after the dive they take it all off you in the water and you don’t touch it again! What a pleasure! The dive boats are big rigid inflatable boats launched from the beach and you all sit in a row on the inflated sides, hanging onto ropes as the boats bounce through the waves to deep water. Great fun actually, and even more fun coming back to shore “surfing” the waves right up onto the sand at a million miles an hour with everyone whooping and screaming!

Apart from one white guy all the dive masters are young black men, and they’re very good. This is their livelihood and they’re thrilled with it. I’m really enjoying the younger generation of black people who have grown up post-apartheid. In general they’re friendly and joyful and don’t have any baggage with the white people, it’s such a nice change from the “bad old days” and gives me hope for the future of my homeland. It was Milord’s first brush with black South Africans and I think he was pleasantly surprised.

All dives are guided, which I don’t mind as long as they don’t rush me. Not a worry at Sodwana! The dive masters try to find the little funky creatures like nudibrancs and paperfish and ghost leaf pipefish (tiny little weird critters that divers get very excited about because they are hard to find). The group moves along the reef slowly, examining every crevice and coral and clownfish in its anemone. The fish life is abundant, and sometimes you can barely see the reef for the fish. Visibility wasn’t bad considering how close we were to the beach – about 15 to 20m I reckon. And of course we saw big stuff too – moray eels and turtles and manta rays and dolphins and a whale shark!

The whale shark was awesome! We had just finished our dive and surfaced when the dive boat came racing over. We threw our dive gear aboard and scrambled on, keeping our fins and masks on (that’s flippers and goggles for you uncool non-divers!), the boat dashed across the water a little way and we all rolled off… to find ourselves a couple of metres away from the biggest sea creature I have ever seen! Ok, everything looks bigger underwater, but this thing was easily 3 or 4 man-lengths long. It was huge! Milord and I took up position just to the left of its head and finned along beside it. It was a meter or so under the surface, just cruising along, and we kept pace with it for probably 20 minutes. Wow. I will admit that I was thinking “Do they call it a whale shark because it’s a really big shark, or because it’s a whale with a pointy dorsal fin?” and was a bit freaked out to be so close to it! It’s a whale with a dorsal fin by the way – it eats plankton!

That yellow snorkel is me!

We did 6 dives over 3 days in Sodwana Bay, and I totally recommend it for divers. There’s not much for non divers though – maybe fishing – as the surf is a bit rough for snorkelling and the reef is too deep. If you go, stay at the Sodwana Bay lodge and tell Ben Jones (the Liverpudlian dive instructor) the loud Aussies say Hi and buy him a beer on us, ok?


Kat said...

Wow.. diving right next to the whale shark must have been amazing!! Mind you I'd have been totally freaked out (not hard since diving near any fish is not my thing!).

have a good weekend!

Suzanne said...

As always, I look at your pictures and wish I were there, too. That sounds like an incredible place to dive!

Canadian Girl said...

Loved your post, loved your pictures. Thanks for letting me live vicariously through you.