South Africa: Garden Route to Umkomaas

East London was the last town before a stretch of drive known as the “Wild Coast.”  We had no idea how “wild” this area would get until the owner of the guest house, Ronnie, gave us the run down.  He told us that for 400km, we could not stop…to pee, get something to eat or fill up on gas.  The roads, he said, would be full of potholes.  We would need to do the entirety of this drive in daylight because 1 in 3 cars don’t have 2 working headlights.  He gave us techniques to prevent kudus from jumping in front of our car or taking our engine block out with a warthog.  Basically, he wanted to make sure we made it safely to our destination.

We did as told.  Between East London and Umkomaas there was a lot of open space.  Towns were few and far between, but, oh so, crowded.  People filled the streets, selling car chargers, steering wheel covers and candy or collecting trash for tips.  And then there would be nothing for 100km or more.

We stopped for the night in Umkomaas, a famous site for diving near Aliwal Shoal.  With our PADI certificates in hand, we sorted out diving times for the following morning: 7am, no problem.

We launched the boat from the beach, dashing through the waves and jumping on in a rush of commands and flailing arms.  We secured our feet in straps and held on tight to the ropes located behind us and the boat sped through the waves.  Almost vertical at points, holding on was the most difficult arm workout I’ve had in months.  On the 30 minute ride to our first dive location, we stopped to watch several groups of humpback whales breaching.  They would launch themselves out of the water, over and over.  I had never seen a whale in the ocean before arriving in South Africa.  Now, we’ve seen them jumping out of the water closer than 20m away.  They were so close; I thought they might land on the boat.  We quickly donned our snorkels and fins and entered the water after our dive leader.  The minute we put our heads under water, we could hear them singing.  It was truly the most spectacular natural wonder I’ve ever witnessed.  When I held my breath, I could feel the vibration in my lungs.  We listened for a few minutes, following as fast as our tiny (in comparison) flippers could move us.  We swam so close to the group of whales at one point, I wondered what I would do if they happened to run into me.

Meanwhile, our dive leader was spreading a trail of fish chum to attract the sharks to the dive site.  We must have led them on while we were chasing the whales because when we arrived, the sharks were active and extremely interested in what we were doing.  With no cage and no protection but for our wetsuits and SCUBA gear, we hung out 10m under water using a floating bar as a guide.    It was like we didn’t learn our lesson in Gansbaai… Making sure to keep our hands still (don’t want them to look like a struggling fish), we watched sharks swim by, past our heads, through our feet…black tip, dusky…We stayed vertical as requested by our dive leader (apparently, all their prey is horizontal in the water, so this let the sharks know we were not food).  For an hour, we watched these creatures swim.






Back on the boat, we warmed up before our second dive on Aliwal Shoal.

The true shock came, however, when we returned to the dive shop.  The price we had been quoted for 2 dives was now 6 times higher.  Apparently, the team had not originally planned to do the baited shark dive, but added it to the itinerary after we had discussed pricing.  We were not informed.  Joshua nearly had a heart attack, pooped his pants and cried at the same time.  He looked faint.  I felt stuck.  We had done the dive.  It had a set price.  We paid, but not without trying to help the office understand why we were so upset.  Our expectations had been set at a different price.  The change was drastic, and they offered no assistance.  They said, they didn’t tell us the price difference because they didn’t think it would matter…we had money, right?!  The feeling of being pegged as a tourist rubbed Joshua the wrong way.  Despite an epic morning, we left the dive office fuming.  To top it off, we ran to the grocery store for a quick meal.  Mine was a “pie” filled with mystery meat, which was described as monkey, and a tomato paste sauce.  It was absolutely disgusting—Joshua couldn’t finish it (and he eats more than anyone his size).  We stomped out of Umkomaas pouting, vowing to learn a lesson, even though when I think back…the sound of the whales was more than worth the price we paid.

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