Day 22

Alright, today was NUTS! Nikki, Maci, and I have been playing with the idea of going shark cage diving with Great Whites for a while now but hadn’t made moves. Unfortunately, they leave this Saturday so time was running out. After texting with a recommended driver from some friends at Connect-123 (the best with suggestions), we had a booked reservation for 6 all day on Tuesday (Nikki, Maci, Tess, Morgan, Sarah, and me). The nurses were jealous that we were missing work to go see the sharks but sent tons of prayers that we’d come home in one piece. Barend, the driver from Great White Shark Tours, picked us up at approx. 6:35 and we set off on our 2.5 hr journey to Gansbaai.

Not gonna lie, I was sketched out about this adventure. Were we going to be in a tiny cage off of some rando’s tug boat? Would we be fed meals? What is Gansbaai anyways? Well, as soon as we arrived (after a long, sleepy ride), all of these questions were answered. Great White Shark Tours is one of many cage diving companies along Gansbaai, one of the few coastal areas in the world where Great Whites naturally come to hunt. In fact, a lot of Shark Week is filmed in Gansbaai!! We arrived to a delicious continental breakfast (featured in the gallery) in a cute little house on the coast, paid for our trip, and met fellow passengers along the “Apex Predator” (their specially engineered boat). We watched a safety/informational briefing then grabbed our supplied waterproof jackets and hopped on the boat.

We had a high-speed, choppy 15-minute ride to our destination, Shark Alley, then anchored down. Shark Alley is a small area in-between Geyser Island and Dyer Island. Dyer Island is the home to over 400 bird species and Geyser Island is home to over 60,000 seals, making the passage in-between the perfect hunting ground for Great Whites. Shark Alley, specifically, is where some of Shark Week is filmed. When we anchored, one of the seven crew members aboard (for only 26 passengers) gave us a warning about their low sightings of sharks recently. Though the South African winter is their high season, bad weather and natural causes had only brought them into contact with one Great White in the entire month. This wasn’t great news but we were determined to have a fun time anyways.

However, this guy spoke too soon. Almost immediately after our “chum master” started putting bait into the water and creating a chum line towards us, we spotted our first Great White of the day. The crew quickly ushered us all into the cabin to get us outfitted in thick wetsuits for the frigid water and stuck the first eight divers into the cage. Their titanium cage is attached directly to the side of the boat and sits both over and underwater. Essentially, you bob around on the surface until a shark was close, then Happy, the shark handler, would tell you to “go down”. You’d take a big breath, hook your feet under a bar in the cage, and pull yourself underwater for a maximum of 10-15 seconds to see the shark. I’m gonna be honest– the visibility wasn’t great so I had better views of all of the sharks from above water rather than underneath BUT when Nikki, Maci, and Tess were in the cage, a shark came directly for them (jaws out) and they got a phenomenal view underwater.

Eight people would get in the cage and after about 5 minutes, the crew would put eight more in to make sure that everybody got a view of the shark. Our first one stuck around for a little while, swimming back and forth from our boat to another one nearby. We were lucky to have seen one so quickly but expected it to be the last one of the day. But we spoke WAY too soon.

We had a phenomenal day, coming into contact with five different Great White Sharks in just over 3 hours on the water. Each of them swam around for a while giving us almost no downtime. The boat had snacks, drinks, and warm towels so whether we were in the cage (I spent a total of 40 minutes in there) or on the boat, the viewing and conditions were fantastic. At one point in the cage, a shark even stuck his pectoral fin between the cage bars and touched my foot… that was pretty cool. As we were wrapping up and getting ready to head back to shore, the crew told us that this may be their best day all year. I’m not sure how we got so lucky but I sure am glad we did.

After another chilly and rough ride back to the dock, we got out of our wetsuits and returned to the house/office. They had hot showers and more towels for us then served a delicious lunch of chicken pea soup and cheese toasties complete with coffee and tea. As we ate, we watched the film our videographer on board had put together (in maybe fifteen minutes? turnaround time was crazy) and talked dramatically about all of the majestic sharks we had seen.

Around 1:30, we boarded Barend’s van again and headed back to Cape Town for a chill afternoon. I napped for a hot second then went to the gym before heading back home to shower and get ready. Tonight we’re heading to Camps Bay for another round of Tuesday night karaoke to really top off the day.

Overall, today was so crazy and has me thinking about how grateful I am to be in Cape Town. Besides having a great time at my internship, living in an apartment, etc., being able to see somewhere on the literal other side of the world from so many angles (from the township of Khayelitsha to the top of Table Mountain to the neighborhoods of the elite to the wonders of the sea) has been so eye-opening. Xhosa word of the day is “shark”: ukrebe.

Shark video soon to come 🙂

Day 13

Today was another early morning but this time, 200% worth it. We reported to the game vehicles at 7am after some coffee and set out for our sunrise drive, searching for every animal that we had missed the day before. Our first hit was the two elephants kept in the park. Unfortunately, this reserve is only 8 combined farms and about 2000 hectares (~5000 acres) whereas other parks like Kruger (northeast South Africa) are more than 4 million hectares. Because of its small size, it cannot sustain free-roaming elephants or lions (legally) and, instead, has those two species cordoned off and taken care of by highly trained zookeepers. For the first time, this park felt more like a park than nature by having these animals contained. However, the elephants and lions were all rescued from hunting lodges and rehabilitated/socialized so I guess it’s all for the greater good. We watched the elephants eat their breakfast (lots of grass) with the sunrise behind them and it was the definition of a money shot (see below for proof).

Next, it was onto more ostriches, zebras, lions, antelope, then, finally, the giraffes. I learned more wildlife facts than I can remember and absolutely basked in the beauty of these animals all while witnessing the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen. It was pink, blue, orange, and cast shadows over the lateral acacia trees to create a surreal vista. If you remember the beginning of “The Lion King”, that’s exactly what this morning felt like. The biggest animal highlight of the morning was the giraffes who walked right next to our vehicle. They’re so friendly and so majestic! See below video for our giraffe escort (sorry it’s huge)

After we returned to the lodge, we had a wonderful breakfast of omelets, fresh fruit, toast, and the like. On our way out, we hit up the gift shop for some animal shirts and many postcards. We hopped back on our shuttle and begrudgingly headed back to Cape Town. I’ve spent the rest of the afternoon grocery shopping, catching up on the blog (sorry, fans), and watching Mad Men. It’s time to sign off so the Xhosa word of the day is “giraffe”: indlulamathi.

Day 12

After a week of waking up at 6:30, I was ready to sleep in but, alas, there is no time to sleep when you’re somewhere as exciting as Cape Town. At approx. 7:30 sixteen girls from the Connect program boarded a bus taking us to the Garden Route Game Lodge. 3.5 hrs later (filled with sleeping and a lot of reading), we arrived at this slice of heaven on earth. See below (or the photo gallery) for pictures of this place– from the deck where we had “high tea”, dry grasslands went on for miles, completely preserved.

At 4:30, we were introduced to our lovely guide, Ines, and set out for our first game drive of the trip. The first animal we came across was a beautiful white rhino named Tim. This dude was huge and we were only about 5 ft away from him. Ines told us a wonderful story about how one time Tim turned his back and urinated directly into the faces of a bunch of elderly Swiss tourists. Unfortunately, we were not so lucky but maybe next time :/

Next, we ran into a bunch of Cape Buffalo, one of the strongest animals in South Africa who gave us a stare down. They routinely pierce animals with their strong “headpieces” and, honestly, I was scared. Ines explained how the animals are socialized to see our vehicle as one object without humans inside of it and have nothing negative to associate it with. However, if we were to leave the vehicle, we would be charged in a minute. Scary stuff.

We drove around a bit more running into some more rhinos (mother and baby!), ostriches, lots of antelope, a hippo, and cheetahs! About halfway through the drive, Ines put us in park, turned around, and said, “you guys are a little quiet– let’s get some alcohol in you!!” We hopped out of the truck (less than .5 miles from some rhinos!!!) and watched the sunset with drinks-of-choice in hand… a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

After a delicious curry-filled dinner and warm bonfire, we headed back out for a night drive, hoping to see some nocturnal animals (owls, small cats, jaguars, etc.). Sadly, we had no such luck but we did run into a family of porcupines and learn how to tell true South in the Southern Hemisphere from our guide during the nightly hot chocolate break. Still worth it.

Now I’m sitting in bed, ready to pass out even if it’s only 10:30pm. Tomorrow morning we’ll be up early again to head out on our sunrise drive so sleep is imperative! Xhosa word of the day is “cheetah”, the coolest animal of the day: ingwenkala.