As you can probably tell, we are really into sharks! Cage diving in Cape Town was a bucket list experience but the best way to see sharks is by scuba diving and actually getting to swim naturally with them. South Africa has a lot of excellent shark experiences – so we have been fitting in as much as we can. One of the top shark dive sites in the world is on the North Eastern coast near Durban so we headed down for a visit over Botswana’s Independence Day holiday weekend in September.
We stayed at the Protea Karridene Beach – again using our trusty Starwood points! Since Starwood has partnered with Mariott we have the option of staying at Protea hotels which are found all across South Africa and quite good. This hotel would be a super nice spot in the summer because it sits right on the beach.
We did our diving with Scuba Xcursion which is based out of the Cutty Sark Hotel in Scottburgh. This is abotu 30 minutes south of Durban. I loved this company! All the staff were excellent – very kind and caring. There are two options for dives – you can visit Ailwol Shoal which is home to the Ragged Tooth Sharks (Raggies) or do a baited shark dive in the open water.
On the first day we started with dives at Aiwol Shoal. As you descend you almost immediately start to see the Raggies. You don’t really get a sense for how unique they are until you are underneath them and they swim right up to you. Then you can see their amazing teeth! They have a grill full of sinister looking overlapping crazy ragged teeth. They also have greyish spots on their body. I think that they were one of the most unique and beautiful sharks we have ever seen.
We saw about 30 raggies during that dive. In every direction, they were really everywhere! The most amazing part was that they could care less about divers being around them. They will swim right up to your face in such a peaceful manner. The first time this happened I was quite alarmed, but after a few times it felt natural and exhilarating.
There were also many other interesting things at the dive site – turtles, large rays, paper fish, eels, puffer fish. I was really impressed with the diversity. The best dive site on the shoal is The Cathedral. The rock formations on the bottom create a circular structure with a central open swim through. The light pours in to the center making it feel like an altar. This is also a favorite hangout for the Raggies making it an especially phenomenal site.
The second day we did our baited shark dive. We didn’t really know what to expect but had been seriously excited about this opportunity. There was just 4 of us on the dive including the guide so that was really nice. We got a major intro lecture to prep us before we headed out. They emphasized over and over how safe it was and that there was no risk for getting hurt ….but at the same time would emphasize the need to keep our hands close to our body at all times. If we waved our hands around they would apparently look like small bait fish. Also the sharks might try to eat your camera or go pros if they are held out on poles because they are also shiny like bait fish. I mean can you just imagine getting your hand or camera bit off! They left us wondering what in the heck to expect!
The bait balls consist of an upper steel sphere with holes that slowly released chum. This is targeted to the oceanic black tip sharks. Then there is a lower plastic carton filled with chum that is aimed at the tiger sharks which like to swim at lower depths (but tiger sharks like warmer water so we were not there in the right season for that). The bait ball was lowered into the water and then we got in and descended to the depth of the first bait ball – about 15 feet. Immediately swarms of king fish hurdled in and created a feeding frenzy around the bait ball. We had to wait a little bit for the oceanics to come in. For some reason they were preferring to swim closer to the surface instead of around the bait ball at our level. We got a smaller group of about 6 that weaved in and out in circles around us. We certainly got a chance to be up close and personal with them, but the experience was less enjoyable than I anticipated. Trying to maintain bouancy at 15 feet while trying to watch things rapidly circle around you was tough – it made me dizzy and a bit nauseous. Also the rapid changes in pressure hurt our ears. I was very glad we did it, but I wouldn’t have signed up for another one. It was something I definitely wanted to check off our bucket list but I wouldn’t choose regular reef diving over this. I would like to go back and do it again in the summer when tigers and bull sharks come in – that would be a totally different experience.
One of the perks of diving in the area in the winter is that you are also surrounded by whales, and dolphins and flying fish! The humpbacks come to this area to raise their calves. We saw countless pairs of moms and babies. Everywhere you looked there were whales swimming, blow holing, spy hopping, fin slapping and breaching. One of the most spectacular events was a female that fully breached less than 10 feet from our boat. I have done a lot of whale watching and actually swam with humpback whales in the Dominican but this was the most spectacular whale siting I have had. I could see every detail of the whale’s belly as she leapt out of the water. It felt like the scene in Life of Pi when the bioluminescent whale leaps over the boy’s boat. You just don’t often get the chance to experience such a massive creature showcasing all of its power in such a beautiful way. We felt so lucky!
One of the unique things about diving in this area is the boat entry you have to make to get out into the ocean. We climbed into a zodiac then pushed it as a group into the water. Then had to get on life jackets and hold on tight! The captain had to drive full speed like a jet boat to twist and turn and get up past the strong surf. We would catch some serious air slamming into to some monster waves. I could have easily gotten tossed from the boat if I wasn’t bracing myself. The exit from the surf was just as action packed – you ride the waves back in and then drive full speed directly at the beach. Then you absolutely slam into the sand – this again could easily have sent me flying from the boat but luckily I was warned to hold on tight. The boat captain was an awesome salty old south African who was really excellent – he made the trips even more fun.
After our two days of diving we decided to head up toward the Drakensburgs for our last night. We stayed at another protea called the “Hilton Hotel” in the town of Hilton. This hotel was super cute and designed to look like a swiss chalet. The area between Durban and the Drakensberg mountains is referred to as the “Midlands” and it has definitely been built up to be the “swiss alps” of Africa. There are a series of cute villages loaded with different shops to visit. A visit to the area is called a “Midlands Meander.”
We visited a honey shop, olive shop, a candlemaking shop, a brewery, an Austrian pub, and a cheese farm. We really loved swissland cheese farms where you can buy cheese, crackers and drinks then they give you a basket and blanket to have a picnic on the beautiful grounds. And we got to feed their baby goats! It was so lovely.
We had a bit of trouble when the wind blew the rental car door shut and locked the keys in the car! The door wasn’t shut hard so Garret came up with the idea of using a wire to try to pull the door handle open. We got as far as latching onto the door handle but unfortunately this car wouldn’t open without that way. So I had another idea – trying to fish out the keys off the back seat with the wire. We got lots of onlookers trying to come and help. They were all skeptical and didn’t think I would be able to do it. I got close a couple of time but the keys dropped off my wire as I pulled them out. It started to rain and Garrett thought we were going to just have to smash the car window to get out of there! But I didn’t give up hope and finally fished out the keys and pulled them through the door. What a mess!
After a long day of meandering, we had dinner at the Hartford House which is about an hour from our hotel up towards the mountains. We arrived after dark so the place looked SUPER creepy. It gave you the feeling of an old haunted estate. It seemed totally empty and had red backlighting on the porches which made it look even more creepy. I felt like we had unknowingly signed ourselves up for a murder mystery dinner party! We got served a 7 course wine paring menu of local ingredients from the nearby farms. It was great food but we were just too tired to fully enjoy it!
On our last day we headed back to Durban. On the drive home Garrett started looking a bit ill. I thought he was just hung over but then he really started looking panicked…. and all of a sudden he began vomiting while driving on the freeway! Luckily we were right at an exit and could pull off on the shoulder. Thankfully he vomited out the window and only got a little bit in the car. Yikes that was shock! He felt so much better after so I thought all was good….until we got on the plane and he started vomiting again! At the worst time too – right during take off when he couldn’t go to the bathroom. He filled up two barf bags! But we contained it all and he again felt much better after. We assume it was the huge pork knuckle he ordered at the Austrian pub the day before!
We didn’t spend much time in Durban. We just ate lunch at a Mexican place called El Toro and dinner at the Greedy Buddha. Both were great. We also walked along the main beach boardwalk which was pleasant but nothing amazing. Like people say it looks a lot like Miami. Lots of big buildings and pastel colors. We didn’t experience the nightlife which would be the real test of comparing it to Miami! We definitely recommend visiting Durban as a jumping off point for diving or meandering in the Drakensburgs. This was an easy weekend trip – especially when you can get a direct flight from Gabs to Durban!