South African Odyssey
I have no idea what happens once you die, but I’d like to be reincarnated as a spinner dolphin. I have no recollection where my obsession with cetaceans came from, but as far back as I can remember I have been entranced and enthralled with films of whales and dolphins cavorting with each other in the oceans of the world. My experience with orcas off British Columbia sparked a thirst for more encounters. Whilst avoiding studying at university one day, I came across a program in South Africa that took volunteers, and after 18 yrs of solid education, I decided to take some time out after graduation and head to the Southern Hemisphere for the first time in my life.
On the bus into Cape Town, I had my eyes opened for the first time. After years of seeing slums and shanty towns on the news, here I was seeing them for myself for the first time. Rows and rows of ramshackle huts made of corrugated iron and whatever other materials came to hand. It humbled me, and made me realise that here I was in Africa. My place of rest was snuggled near the base of Table Mountain, and it towered over me from such proximity. It was impressive to say the least. The grounds had security entry and walking down to the main road brought me level with armed guards patrolling the neighbouring hotels. Yes, I was definitely in Africa.
It’s amazing how first impressions can be so false. I was so nervous and suspicious that day wandering round, but after subsequent trips back to the city, I have found it to be a charming and relaxing place that has a fantastic vibe and joie de vivre. In essence: I loved it there. 5 hrs east of the city was my home for 3 months: Plettenberg Bay, one of my absolute favourite places in the whole world. Words will never do justice to the beauty of that town and the surrounding Garden Route, nor will I ever be able to fully express the effect on me that that stay had. I believe everybody has a lifechanging moment or timespan where they grow or develop as a person, and my time in Plettenberg Bay was it.
I lived on a farm about 20 mins drive from the town, which just so happened to share a fenceline with the neighbouring elephant sanctuary. Looking out the bedroom window across the field to the elephants bathing themselves in the pool, was a sight that never grew tiring, nor did the sound of their haunting trumpeting to each other, or the vision of the youngsters playing with each other.
The majority of the time was spent office bound, collating data relating to the dolphins and whales that frequented the area. The Centre for Dolphin Studies has been based in the area for many years, and is associated with the commercial company Ocean Safaris that runs whale watching trips out on the bay. There is a resident pod of bottlenose dolphins in the bay, as well as migrating humpback dolphins, common dolphins, humpback whales, bryde whales, southern right whales and orcas. I was in my element. The research side was also investigating the diet of the local population of Cape Fur Seals, a task that involved monthly trips to the colony to pick up poo for sieving. This involved a terrifying scramble down the scree slope on Robberg Peninsula, avoiding mambas and other poisonous creatures, only to be engulfed with a putrifying smell of rotten fish, faeces and urine. Add in a temperature of 26-30 oC and you may come close to imagining how the task might have felt.
The highlight of the week was the outdoor excursions. Once a week, we were allowed to join a whale watching trip with the tourists, and we joined in their awe as the whales came up to the boat and appeared to play with us. On one occasion a juvenile male appeared to practice his mating technique on the hull of the boat, and the dolphins loved showing off their acrobatics. My favourite whale is the humpback. I have watched countless reels of footage of them breaching and feeding off Alaska and Hawaii, and when that first humpback appeared near Plett, I could have cried. They were beautiful, elegant and mesmerising. After 3 months, I lost count of the number of cetaceans I saw. Certainly, the Southern Right Whales and Humpack Whales were nearing the 100 mark, the dolphins were in the 1000s, and there were sightings of a few Bryde whales and a large shoal of hammerhead sharks which lived near the shipwreck in the bay. My favourite dolphin is the Common dolphin, and I was regularly disappointed with the lack of sighting of this species. As an open ocean feeder, they don’t tend to come into the bay, so seeing them meant heading out into open ocean. The entrance of the bay is an interesting affair to negotiate, and boy can you tell the difference in the sea swells! Several of the tourists on board the trip struggled to keep their lunch in their bellies. On only 2 occasions did we ever venture out the bay, and on one of those trips we were rewarded with a large pod of common dolphins racing towards us, and passing around us. I felt complete.
Whilst the real purpose of the trip was to explore my love of cetaceans, it was the out-of-work activities that made the trip. I made some fantastic friends there, 1 of which lived in a city I’d only visited once as a child, but following my return to Scotland, ended up being my home for the successive 5.5 years. Indeed, my first place of work ended up being 2 minutes along the road from her house!
As a group, we made the most of our weekends of freedom. Trips to Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Outdshoorn, Knysna, Wilderness, and Tsitsikamma presented opportunities for hiking, canoeing, horse riding, ostrich riding and bungee jumping. The highest bungee jump in the world is at Bloukrans bridge to the east of Plett. The fall is 216m down towards the canyon base. The guys that work there are the epitome of the term lekker, and they were great at helping you put a brave face on. On my first visit, I took the zip slide from the gorge side to the mid-arch of the bridge, then offered support to my friends that took the bungee plunge. I always told myself that I would never do something as stupid as that, but yet a few weeks later, I was back again, strapped up and teetering on the brink. Looking out at the gorge in front of me, I had an experience which was as real to me as anything I have ever experienced, but which wasn’t real. I’ve never been able to explain it, and nobody has ever been able to explain it to me since. Standing on the edge of the jump site I had an out-of-body experience. The guys were running through the system checks prior to letting me jump, but yet there I was soaring through the air down towards the river below, falling, falling, until all of a sudden I was back up in myself on the jump spot. After the countdown, and the launch into the air, everything was as I had just felt it moments before.
For those who have never done a bungee jump, it is nothing like skydiving. This is very disappointing, considering I had just done a tandem skydive a few weeks before and loved it immensely. For those who have never skydived, well you don’t know what you are missing. The flight up from the little airport at Plett gave such an amazing view of the surrounding coastline and countryside that I was so distracted by that to care about the impending leaping forth from the plane in mid air. At 12,000ft, the door opened, and before I knew it I was sat in the doorway. 1,2,3 and we were out. The fact of skydiving is that you are descending towards a rather hard object (the Earth), at terminal velocity. The reality, or rather the perceived reality is that you are floating weightlessly in the air. There is no sensation of falling, just the peaceful feeling of floating like a gliding bird. It has to be experienced to be believed, but it was a feeling that I loved and wanted to repeat. Once under canopy, I had the surreal experience of holding a conversation with my friend Emma at an altitude of 3,000ft, her strapped to one guy, me strapped to another. I remember it so vividly, not the words, but just the image of her and I in mid-air talking to each other amidst adrenalin-hyped giggles, before separating in order to land safely. Certificate in hand, I vowed to do it again.
Bungee jumping on the other hand, is not so enjoyable. After launching off the bridge, I waited for the floating sensation to kick in, only to quickly realise that I was indeed falling, and falling upside down at that. I remember screaming as was instructed to be done, and then eventually the bungee cord kicked in and the bouncing up and down commenced. This part was thankfully quite enjoyable, and then there was just the matter of hanging around upside down waiting for a man you couldn’t see to rappel down to you and assist you back up to the bridge. It was all very surreal, and the way I see it, if I’ve done the highest in the world, why would I need to do it again?? It is a good way to burn off some calories thanks to the tacchycardia that develops, so perhaps it can be introduced into the weight watchers programme as a viable alternative to dieting, although probably not the best idea for people with underlying cardiothoracic issues.
During the last month I also had a go at something else I’d fancied for some time. Heading back to the little airport, I sat with an instructor getting some ground schooling before getting to take the controls of a Cessna to take to the skies. Heading west from Plett, we flew towards and around Knysna, practising stalling procedures, and getting to grips with the plane’s manouverability. Banking and climbing we surveyed the countryside below us before losing altitude and flying low over the heads of Knysna, prior to turning back east towards Plett. On the radio on the way back to the farm, the track ‘I believe I can fly’ by R Kelly came on, and it put a smile to my face. One day I will get back up there, and get myself a licence.
One long weekend, we headed back to Cape Town. Again staying at the foot of Table Mountain, we sat in the bar in awe at the view. From the V&A Waterfront, we took the boat out to Robben Island to see the infamous prison that held captive Nelson Mandela. The guide is a former prisoner himself, a man who was there at the same time as Mr Mandela, and despite his experiences there, he was still determined to stay there for work purposes in order to show tourists, who will never ever comprehend the realities of his experience there, around his former ‘home’. The cells have little room for stretching, never mind swinging a cat. The bed, little more than a mat on the floor, and the toilet simply a pan in the corner. It takes a greater mind than mine to stay sane in a place like that over the 18yrs that he was there for.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast of fried food, the blanket finally lifted from the table top, and we set off for Table Mountain. When it comes to mountains, if there is a cable car up to the top, then I’d rather hike up. We chose a route up on the front face, which for about the final 80% of it is a near vertical climb. I find it difficult to keep pace with others, preferring to continue at my own rate, so when one of the party started to suffer from vertigo, I had to keep going in order to not have to look back or down, and fall foul of the same problem. It was up to Dawn to encourage Claire to keep going so that we could all be triumphant. Emma and I made it up to the top at the same time, gasping for air and water, followed by Dawn and Claire some time later. Eventually making it to the main tourist area, we wandered round sweaty and triumphant, only to be looked down upon by the cable car tourists, for our dishevelled appearance. Frankly I feel the view was so much more worth seeing after our effort to get there!
Our hire car to Cape Town was from Banger Car Hire. It had no power steering, and it was old fashioned, but on the open road it drove like a dream. Thankfully, it also turned out to be baboon-proof. We headed down to the Cape of Good Hope, passing through Simon’s Town to visit the famous colony of Cape Penguins at Boulders Beach. As we neared the Cape Point, numerous troups of baboons littered the side of the road and ogled us as we passed. Further on, there were ostriches wandering free, and eventually we reached the car park at the Cape where the wind took our breath away as we got out. The Cape marks the most South-Western point of the African continent, and is where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Southern Ocean, a mixing line which can be clearly visible from the lighthouse at times. The rugged landscape was dramatic and the whipping wind added to it. We spent hours wandering around the varying walks and lighthouses that mark out the Cape. On the drive back to Cape Town, we came across a troup of baboons in the middle of the road. Stopping to take photographs, we got a bit of a shock when a male baboon jumped onto the bonnet of the car and looked through the windscreen at us. We sat for several moments staring at each other before he eventually climbed onto the roof. He refused to get off until he was coaxed to with a gentle drive forward of the car whence he proceeded to slide skilfully off the back and jump onto the ground behind us.
Outdshoorn is a totally different world compared to the Garden Route. In the ‘outback’, it is a land of orange barrenness, sparsely vegetated and with an overwhelming majority population of ostriches versus humans. Cango Caves sits in the rocks high above the town, and is a mesmerising maze of caverns full of stalactites and stalagmites. For added adrenalin, we opted to take the optional cave crawling tour. As we were warned at the start, this would involve passing through tight passages and gaps no wider than the length of an average ruler. One of the first challenges was ‘the devil’s chimney’, ascending 3.6m through a passage with a narrowest point of 45cm. I was one of the last people to enter the chimney, staring up at the arse of a complete stranger, only for them to freeze halfway up. There are occasions when I can struggle with claustrophobia. Thankfully it doesn’t happen that often, but I had to battle hard to fight off the demons when I was stuck in a chimney below a stranger who was having to be coaxed up the remaining climb. Following this, there were several narrow passages to squeeze through or crawl through, culminating in ‘the letter box’, a narrow slit in the floor of the cave, shaped like a letter box, and only 27cm high. This was a task that involved shimmying through on your back, or on your front if you fancied going head first into the next chamber.
Outdshoorn is most famous for it’s ostriches. For miles around, the road signs point to one farm or another, many of which are open for tourists to wander round. At the hostel we stayed in, we enjoyed a braii (bbq) of ostrich meat which was delicious, and every morning, an ostrich egg was opened to feed everybody for breakfast. It contains the equivalent contents of 24 chicken eggs, so all the guests could enjoy omelette, scrambled egg or whatever they fancied. Down on the ostrich farm, a couple of hatchlings were breaking out of their shell in the incubator, juveniles were strutting their stuff in the fields, and the adults were racing against each other on the racetrack. Ostrich riding is much like sitting on a large feather cushion with a large joystick as a control. Bending the neck left turns it left, right turns it right, and pulling it back makes it stop. Their long sinewy necks are so flexible that they can bend them round in all sorts of angles, something which you need to be very aware of with the males when it comes to avoiding bites from an amorous bird. They are such fascinating creatures, and I could have sat on one all day if I was allowed to. Instead, I got a few moments of being ‘saddled’ up, whilst Dawn and Emma got the pleasure of riding one around the arena. It is a sight that will stay with me forever.
The Outeniqua Choo-Choo is a train ride that runs from Knysna to Wilderness and back through some of the most beautiful scenery of the garden route. Across lagoons, through glens, alongside lakes and rivers, we chugged west towards the rather sedate but understated town of Wilderness. The beach of Wilderness is beautiful. Open and exposed yet clean and peaceful, it was a lovely place to get lost in your thoughts. There’s not a lot to do in the town itself, but it was a lovely day trip away and Dawn and I enjoyed walking along the beach listening to the roar of the Southern Ocean. Some weeks later, Claire and I returned for work purposes as a humpback whale carcass had washed up on the shore. Blubber samples amongst other things can give valuable information for researchers studying the lifestyle and habitat of these creatures, so we were dispatched with instructions on what to collect. Unfortunately, the local council had already started to break the body to pieces in order to get rid of such a mammoth body on the rather public stretch of beach, so by the time we got there, it was a mess. It was a stinking, rotting mess at that! The body had been spotted at sea a couple of weeks earlier so we knew it wasn’t fresh. Rotting already in the heat over that time, the corpse was a mass of blubber and rotting flesh. Collecting the samples that we needed involved wading knee deep into the quagmire. I was again in my element, fascinated by the anatomy. We appeared in the local paper, and my subsequent article was also published in the Plett newsletter. After a long day raking through rotting tissue for the samples we needed, we were starving. A quick wash in the sea did little to remove the goo that was by now caked to my bare legs and arms. Undeterred, we traipsed into the local petrol station to get some snacks, only to be met by several eyes above several upturned noses. We stank, but we didn’t care. On returning to the farm, the dogs greeted us with elation and started licking our legs and clothes. To them, we smelt of meaty heaven…
I spent a few more days in Cape Town before returning to Scotland. By then it was December, the temperature was hotting up, the days were lengthening, and I struggled to merge that in my mind with the Christmas tunes that were playing in the shops at the time. The flight back to London involved one of the worst spells of turbulence I have ever experienced, over Nigeria, and I found myself restless and sore in the seat, having spent the day hiking around the outskirts of Cape Town. We flew over Tunisia at night, and the cities twinkled below us. I returned home tanned but cold. The snow was not far behind my arrival in Scotland, and the realities of a northen Christmas soon took hold. The friends I made in South Africa are now spread far and wide. Another place added to my list of places to return to, and the far flung friends are a good excuse for further adventures abroad…