South Africa, the “rainbow” nation, is a magical place, by the intense colors, boundless territories (as big as Italy, France, Belgium and Germany combined) and changing. The rivers, lakes, waterfalls, the burning deserts, the mountains sometimes covered with snow, the savannahs, the subtropical forests and the oceanic coasts make it a beautiful land, which deserves to be visited at least once in a life.
South Africa is also the very image of the miracle of nature’s explosion, with its many facets and, in the collective imagination, brings to mind great adventures and ancestral legends. However, it is not easy to reach: it’s a long journey and only few Italian airlines and airports offer direct connections to the city of Cape Town. Therefore, anyone wishing to visit Cape Town must include at least one stop at an intermediate airport.
We have chosen the following solution: Rome – Istanbul flight, airport stop for a few hours and then a second flight from Istanbul to Cape Town. The total trip time was about 15 hours: 3 hours for the first leg, 2 hours of stopover and 10 hours for the flight Istanbul – Cape Town. It was a long and boring journey spent dozing, eating and watching movies. The approach to the Cape Town airport is very spectacular and through the airplane window, when the weather conditions are good, you have the chance to admire it from above.
Cape Town is delightfully set between the flat and polished top of Table Mountain, which overtops it with its 1,085 meters high, and the Atlantic Ocean waters.
We land exhausted from the long journey and attend to the usual bureaucratic formalities of passport and customs control. At the arrivals gate, Warren Hardenberg, a jovial seventy-year-old man with kind manners and a contagious smile, is waiting for us and greets us with a warm welcome. With him, we head towards the exit. Warren is the owner, along with his son Morne, of the diving center Shark Explorers and the task of managing the logistics for the entire duration of our stay in South Africa will be entrusted to them and the professionalism of their team. At the exit of the terminal, a clear sky and a light autumn breeze awaken us from the long journey.
After a short walk, we reach the parking area where our van is waiting for us. We quickly load our equipment and baggage, and are ready to move toward Simon’s Town.
Driving south on the M5, we leave Cape Town and, along the way, we cross a series of neighborhoods characterized by luxurious residences. About thirty minutes, and we get onto the M4, a marvelous coastal road that runs south along the west coast of the Cape Peninsula.
With our noses pressed against the window, we admire the intensity of the colors characterizing the landscape: the reds and yellows of the lands, the intense greens of the vegetation are the dominant colors of this landscape. We follow the signs to the Cape of Good Hope.
Along the way, beautiful villas blend harmoniously with the coastal vegetation, offering a unique view over the False Bay waters.
Warren’s relaxed driving and a gentle background music lull us along the way.
We cross successively the towns of Muizemberg, Kalk Bay and Fish Hoak, until we reach our destination: Simon’s Town.
Simon’s Town is a small town and a South African naval base located on the east coast of the Cape Peninsula, in the Western Cape Province, overlooking False Bay.
This will be our home for the next 10 days. Once at the hotel, we take quickly possession of our rooms, simple but functional, and then we go visiting the guys at Shark Explorers for a first briefing on weather conditions. Morne confirms that the weather will be good for the next 5 days: good news!
The program for the next day will be as follows: meeting at the diving center at 9:30 am to set up the equipment; departure at 10:30 am from the pier in front of the hotel; diving with blue sharks and Mako sharks, 30 miles south of Cape Point; finally, return to the harbor in the early afternoon.
Set the agenda for the following day, we say goodbye to the diving guys for going back to the hotel.
There, a brief stop to retrieve the photographic equipment, and then a walk to the beach of Boulder, famous for its colony of Cape penguins (Spheniscus demersus), to admire the sunset. In about ten minutes, we arrive at the beach and, from the top of the road, we see a small group of penguins wandering awkwardly on the shoreline. We shoot, shoot and shoot again! The marvelous sunset lights spread in the landscape a poignant combination of shades ranging from yellow to blue. The day ends with a relaxing fish dinner in one of the many restaurants at Simon’s Town harbor. Then, all in bed. The second day opens as scheduled. We go to the diving center, set up our gear and finally we wear our wetsuits. Once at the dock, we find the boat moored with our diving equipment already on board: we just have to load the cameras and sail away. The Shark Explorers team is swift and efficient, a watch by the cogwheels oiled to perfection.
We break the moorings in a southerly direction, along the beautiful Cape Peninsula up to its extreme end: Cape Point. A light and playful atmosphere accompanies us during navigation and, given the perfect sea conditions, we have the opportunity to admire the coast. Arriving at Cape Point, we stop the engines for a brief stopover, just enough to take some souvenir pictures of the cliff and the lighthouse.
We continue heading further south, searching for the Angulas current together with a point where the water temperature is about 18° C.
There, there is a greater chance of meeting the Mako and the blue sharks. After a few hundred meters the first surprise: the ocean magically comes to life giving us a show nothing short of sensational.
As if by wizardry, hundreds and hundreds of dolphins materialize all around us, seeming to greeting us with jumps, somersaults and pirouettes. A magic.
We stock up on photos and video … we are totally captivated by their beauty. We follow their movemets for about ten minutes, and then we must give up: we are headed in a completely different direction.
Along the route we cross several fishing vessels and go beyond. Morne confirms that the water is changing color: we are near the dive site and after a few more hundred meters the water becomes an intense cobalt blue. Here we are, we can stop the engines and start attracting sharks with the chum.
Just a few minutes, and from the surface we see a bluish shape that sinuously rises from the abyss: it is the first shark. To that one, another joins, then another, up to become a swirling group of about fifteen sharks.
We lowered the chum basket into the water.
Our adrenaline is rising and we cannot wait to get down into the water. As per routine, our diving guide gives us the latest recommendations on safety and emergency procedures.
A quick, dry briefing ending with the phrase “Safety first! Small problem … Big problem!”.
The boat activities become more hectic, we make the final check and wear our equipment: we are ready!
We will enter into the water all together at Morne’s signal.
Below us, the blue sharks are gathering around the bait container, placed six meters deep. We deflate our BCDs and descend a few meters, keeping the established depth where we placed the chum container.
This is the depth we need to maintain for the entire duration of the dive.
The blue sharks are all around us and do not hesitate to approach, driven by curiosity.
We play with them for about fifty minutes, but unfortunately, no Mako shark. When the time available to us is almost over, a pair of Cape fur seals, attracted by the smell of the bait, comes to visit us.
A new gift, the second of the day: everything here happens very quickly. We go back with a new photos and videos booty and with the morale to the stars. It was a unique and extraordinary experience. We return to the harbor shortly after lunchtime, and the rest of the day slips away smoothly.
The program for the next day and for the next 4 days includes a visit to Seal Island, where if we are lucky, we could attend one of the most spectacular predatory behaviors of the animal world: the great white sharks’ breaching.
In principle, the boat trips for the observation of the white shark are divided into three phases that are the “natural predation”, the “tow” and the “cage”.
In the first phase, we observe the natural predation with the hunting of white sharks to sea lions. In the second, a fake seal (decoy) is lowered into the water and towed, in order to stimulate the shark to attack it. Finally, in the third part, the boat is anchored and a steel cage (able to contain up to a maximum of five people) is lowered into the water and the chumming begins.
Typically, the tour lasts about five hours. The 5:30 wakeup call announces the beginning of a new day, the third. We leave at 7:00, when it is still dark. About thirty minutes of navigation are enough to reach Seal Island. Slowly, the colors of the night give way to those of a spectacular sunrise. In the distance, a growing cacophonic noise signals irrefutably that we are approaching the island: there’s little missing. The air becomes heavy and we are hit by an acrid and pungent smell caused by the droppings of several thousands of Cape fur seals, chaotically crammed onto the island. At the first lights of day, individually or in small groups, the seals leave Seal Island to get food. The white sharks’ ambushes concentrate in the area in front of the island, when the sea lions, at the end of the hunt, return to Seal Island.
That said, we start looking constantly for sea lions returning to the island. Once identified, we begin to track their movements in the hope that something happens. It is a game of patience and requires continuous movements from one side of the boat to the other. We wait, following the seals’ movement with the eye stuck against the camera viewfinder. We wait. We wait and hope. Then, suddenly, a scream rises: “Three o’clock! Full breach!”. Our excitement is skyrocketing: far from us, a wonderful white shark of about four and a half meters breached, coming completely out of the water for a fraction of a second and showing itself in its whole figure. The following moments are chaotic and the action ends in a jiffy. It is a game of tight maneuvers by both sides: the predator attacks, the prey defends itself with elusive movements, then, the end.
The water turns red. The powerful bite of the shark went to target relegating the poor fur seal to its sad destiny. Seagulls joined the feast calling for their part, summoned by the movement in the water. A few moments more and everything returns to normal. The waiting starts again, hoping once again to witness an attack. Unfortunately, nothing new happens over the next hour.
Therefore, the captain of the boat chooses to move on to towing.
We lowered into the water a reproduction of a seal, a dummy, and towed it about twenty meters from the boat in order to stimulate the shark to attack. Then, the boat began to sail in broad and circular trajectories within the most likely area. Our cameras are ready to shoot and our lenses focuses on the dummy: we hope that the magic accomplishes and that the shark jumps out of the water to attack. However, the wait is nothing short of unnerving and the pain in the arms, with the passing of time, becomes more and more unbearable. From time to time, we allow ourselves some short rest: keeping the lenses fixed on the seal is a task anything but simple, having also to fight with the boat instability. Suddenly, with a lightning movement, the shark bites the seal, breaching completely out of the water.
Shouts of joy accompany the thunderous noise of dozens of cameras shooting simultaneously.
Everything happens in a few moments and we are shocked by the feat of strength and the acrobatic gesture. Looking at each other, we have the expression of who is wondering if what we saw really happened.
We double-check the photos.
The most talented between us managed to capture the entire sequence, and each frame gives us details impossible to see in real time. The morale is sky high. Again, the great white shark will grant no encore.
At nine o’clock, Morne decides it’s time to drop the anchor: the “shark cage” session begins.
With a few skilled maneuvers, the crew drops the cage into the water, placing it along the starboard side.
With it we throw into the sea: a foam shape simulating the profile of a seal (called decoy), and two tuna heads, the baits. Three different crewmembers operate the decoy and the bait through ropes. A fourth member is in charge of the chum, constantly pouring fish pieces into the water. We’re waiting, again.
The imperative is “Wait!”
On board everyone tackles it their own way: some eat, some smoke a cigarette and others doze.
The cameras are close at hand and we are always ready to shoot. Some are wearing diving suits, ready to throw themselves into the cage at the first sign of the crew. Hours go by and nothing happens.
No trace of the whites. After endless hours of waiting, we see a fantastic specimen of over four meters coming by. The shark moves forward swimming a few meters deep.
The swiftest, among those wearing the suit, quickly enter the cage; the others are flocked on the balustrade, shooting pictures wildly. The shark accelerates and pounces on one of the two baits. The crew guy reacts with an extraordinary reflex by withdrawing the bait toward himself, which brings the white closer to the cage. Meanwhile, in the cage, some of us await instructions from the crew.
Shouting “Down cage! Down, Down, DOWN!” the boys dive, holding their breath for as long as possible. Only the cage’s steel bars separate them from the huge shark. The shark plays with our baits for another few minutes, then disappears dissolving in the waters of the bay.
The tour does not give more surprises, at least for the rest of the day and therefore, at lunchtime, we leave the island to return to the harbor. We disembark only for a few hours: we must make the most of the sea conditions that are excellent, and so will remain for the next four days. We eat something and meet the Shark Explorers team at two p.m. to sail again, this time toward Miller’s Point.
We will dive in the kelp forest and in a cove not far from Miller’s Point, populated by a small colony of sea lions. Kelp is a type of brown seaweed that grows in shallow marine waters and near coastal areas.
The luxuriant growth of these algae creates a nutrient-rich environment, a lush habitat with excellent biodiversity.
Here we find animals such as seven-gill sharks, pajama sharks, Cape fur seals, different types of nudibranchs and many other varieties of fish. Diving into this spectacular forest gives us a profusion of emotions: it is nice to get lost among the gigantic algae leaving us lulled by the surf.
Fifty minutes and we go back on board to move to the second dive site. It is close at sunset and the available light time is now little.
We go back in the water. To welcome us at the bottom, we find a fantastic carpet of benthic animals in the shades of blue, purple, pink and orange swinging to the rhythm of the waves.
Not far from us the seals seem to dance: we are totally enraptured by the skill with which these creatures move in the water.
Reluctantly, we leave the seals to go back into the boat: sunset is approaching.
It was a day full of activity and of high emotional impact.
Over the next four days, we go back again to visit the great white sharks of Seal Island. Every time the boat schedule is the same.
We witness several sharks’ attacks on seals, sometimes successful, sometimes not
We get the best results from the Shark Cage phase: some “white” come very close to the cage, and so we can take great pictures.
Moreover, this allows all of us to observe them in the water for long periods and from just a few meters away. Four spectacular days.
In the afternoon of the seventh day, we get on the bus heading towards the southern end of the Cape Peninsula.
The region around the Cape is a nature reserve called the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve.
The reserve consists of about 7700 hectares along 40 km of coastline. Established in 1938, is home to many species of animals, particularly ostriches, antelopes, wildebeests, warthogs and baboons.
At the gateway, we pay the entrance ticket of about 135 rand (8 euros) then continue to the reserve’s main parking lot.
Leaving the bus, we walk along a steep path that leads to the main lighthouse (there are two, the oldest located at the highest point of Cape Point). From there, you can enjoy a wonderful view of the ocean, the bay and the Cape Peninsula.
We take advantage of the panoramic view to recover our breath, exhausted after the uphill walk.
Finally, we go back toward the parking lot until we come across a second path, leading us to the reserve’s main beach.
We end our excursion by stopping at the beach: the time to take some pictures, and then back to the hotel.
On the eighth day, given the impossibility of going out by boat (waves nine meters high and winds blowing at 46 knots), we go visiting Cape Town. The visit is very short and the continuous thunderstorms make everything more complicated. We try to reach the Table Mountain, but the strong wind and a cloudy sky covering the mountaintop make the ascent useless. We have to give up.
The coming storm allows us only a brief stop at the Arab quarter.
A few pictures of the pastel-colored houses and we have to fall back towards the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, the historic heart of Cape Town harbor, located between Robben Island and Table Mountain.
There we give ourselves a few hours of distraction between the storefronts of the shopping center, have lunch and finally return to the hotel in Simon’s Town.
The strong winds and rains do not allow us extending our visit. On the last day in Simon’s Town, the sea conditions are still terrible and we have to remain on dry land.
Therefore, we take advantage of the rough seas to visit three excellent places where the locals practice surfing.
The first is in the Cape nature reserve, then in the Kalk Bay beach and lastly in the Muizemberg beach.
The magnificent waves of over 3 meters, allow us to admire the local boys performing acrobatic maneuvers aboard their surfboards.
For the latest travel days, we move to the north reaching the Aquila Private Game Reserve: a beautiful nature reserve, which is worth visiting even if you cannot certainly talk of a real safari.
It is still a nice experience to do, not far from Cape Town.
We take advantage of the daily excursions, one at dawn and the other at sunset, to observe the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) and the other savannah animals.
Again, we hoard up on photos and videos. We go back home, satisfied, with a baggage full of beautiful memories and conscious of having visited only a small part of a huge country.
Our hope is to return, as soon as possible, to this amazing nation called South Africa.
WORDS and PICTURES by Sergio Riccardo