Cape Town

travel

The real Shark Tank: cage diving with great whites in South Africa

DSC_0073

Often called one of the most exhilarating experiences on earth, I decided to try cage driving with great white sharks while visiting Cape Town for about a month. It seemed like a hell of a way to kick off my time in South Africa – daring, bucket list experience that I will never have to do again in life. And frankly, that’s exactly how I feel about it to this day. If you have a free day in Cape Town and want to try something different, then this experience may be for you. If you hate getting seasick, long boat rides and feeling a shark’s slippery skin rub on your bodysuit, this may NOT be for you.

There are dozens of cage diving operators in the area, so we took one that our hotel suggested (rookie mistake, as I usually do my own research and book something without a middle man getting kick-backs, but the hotel owner was a very kind man, and we trusted his suggestion). The operator is called Supreme Sharks, they are highly experienced – and a day with them (including transportation from Cape Town and back, breakfast, lunch, boat ride, cage diving, wet suit and diving mask) sets you back ~2,000 ZAR (~140 USD) per person, which seems astronomically high compared to prices in the rest of South Africa. Nonetheless, keeping in mind it was a once in a lifetime experience, why the hell not?

At 3:00 a.m., we got picked up from Cape Town in a small van along with a couple of others and began a ~3 hour journey to Gansbaai, a small town near “Sharkstown”.  You can get some shut-eye on this journey, the road isn’t too windy or bumpy.

Arriving at the Supreme Shark center, we were fed a hearty breakfast of eggs, ham and hot tea (which many should NOT have eaten, but I’m getting ahead of myself…). We were also asked to listen to important instructions and warnings, and we signed waivers, essentially relieving the company of all wrong-doing in case we became shark food. So on that cheerful note and a few nervous chuckles later, we selected our wet suits. Note: I’m not scuba-certified, nor do I want to be. It was my second time ever in a wet suit, and unfortunately I learned later that the size was completely wrong (too large) and I’d regret this. We also got dry bags to carry things like cameras and waters, but most of the stuff was left securely at the Center.

Cage diving operators “Supreme Sharks” begin easing their boat into shark-infested waters
Appropriately apprehensive about this insane thing I’m about to do

We walked to the boat aptly named “Great White” to begin a rough 30-minute voyage to a spot where we might find great white sharks. Now, you’re not guaranteed to see any sharks, nor are you compensated if you have this bad luck (I think they give you a discount on your next trip, but no money back…). They do, however, monitor tide levels and weather the day before, so the journey would be cancelled or postponed for safety reasons.

They asked everyone to change into the wetsuits over our bathing suits on board while the boat got anchored in the middle of the sea.

Wet-suited up and wanting a lollipop

This was 7:00 a.m. The weather was not in our favor yet, and we worried that visibility wouldn’t be great, which meant shark sightings could be limited. It was slightly overcast and cold as hell during the month of October. While we were changing, we got divided into 3 groups of 8, as only 8 people can fit into the cage at a time. We were in the second group, so we watched and learned as the first group climbed into the cage to face their fate.

“Helping” people in and out of the cage – I suppose it’s better than becoming shark food
Packed like a can of sardines

The boat captain then tried to lure any nearby sharks in by throwing  stinky chum out into the water on a rope. After what seemed like ages in tumultuously wavy waters, we heard the captain yell “Down! Down!” to the first group. Before I knew it, I saw an ugly gray, razor-like fin speed its way in our direction from below. I would even say the view from the top is more impressive than in the cage if visibility is bad. I stood, stunned and frozen (literally and figuratively) as my mind wrapped around the fact that I was going to be in these icy waters (which was literally about 19 degrees Celcius) moments from now, going head to head with has been ranked the greatest predator on earth. No big deal. I didn’t feel fear, just the usual anxiety. All I saw were rows of jagged teeth, big dead black eyes and that ghoulish fin.

Fins of foes
Comin’ in hot!

Getting after that shark bait

Finally it was our group’s turn. I got in the middle of the cage, putting my swimming mask on tight, and then I felt the cold water hit me like a ton of bricks, because the damn wet suit was a size too big. ARGH!! I decided to divert my attention on not being eaten by a shark instead as the top of the cage door slammed shut with a loud bang. Now all I could hear was the nauseating creakiness of the boat and metal cage rocking against the rise and fall of the sea, while the eight of us waited, partially submerged in the Atlantic Ocean. What sucks is they don’t give you the snorkeling breathing tube, just the mask for your nose and eyes – if you struggle with holding your breath under water, this could be very difficult.

It seemed like an eternity waiting and shivering, and I was about to say, “Get me the fuck out of here” when I heard the dreaded words, “Dive! Dive! Dive!” And intuitively, without taking a deep enough breath, I stuck my head below the water level and moved closer to the edge of the cage, forcing my eyes wide open.

Everything looked murky and green for a second, when I saw a shadow darting around. That can’t be the shark, can it? As the shadow transformed into that familiar gray mass of the predatory creature I saw from above, I caught a glimpse of the stinky chum swing just in front of the cage top, followed by those teeth!! HOLYSHIT! I was cage diving with a great white shark!  The shark came around the cage several more times, bumping the cage angrily as it couldn’t tear off all the chum on the hook. We waited for further signals to dive while we graciously replenished our oxygen in between. I had to remember to hold the cage bars that were NOT outwardly facing the shark… because I fully intended to come back with the 10 fingers I came with.

Dark shadows that turned out to be sharks
View from the cage
When the sharks tail/fin almost knocked the GoPro out of our hands!
They do get insanely close to the cage without actually being inside
Someone wanted breakfast.. and it wasn’t me!
Hangry noms! And those teeth…
Dead eyes, am I right??

After about 20-30 minutes in the cage and a few more appearances by Mrs. Great White (we learned there were several females in the area that morning), we climbed out of the cage.

Me behind two German girls – ready to get into some warm clothes

The third and last group went next, ironically having worse luck and fewer sightings. The captain asked if anyone else wanted to go a second time, but frankly, I had had enough. I was freezing cold, to a point I could not enjoy the experience anymore – and what’s worse, half of the people on the boat were at the edge losing their breakfast. And I’m one of those people who has a serious aversion to vomit. Luckily, I had taken a precautionary Dramamine that morning specifically fearing this situation – but the sight of everyone puking truly made even me feel green at the gills. Funny enough, the solution for seasickness onboard was sucking on these obnoxiously bright sugary lollipops. Literally, the whole boat was all all over them! I hope it helped…

Finally, we changed back into our dry, warm clothes as the boat turned around and made its way back to Gansbaai (by now it was around 11:00 a.m.). I could not WAIT to get off of that boat and kiss the ground. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m an anxious traveler who get sweaty palms and nervous from all unpredictable turbulence, bumps, waves, turns and what not. But sharks? Meh.

One thing I should mention is there’s a professional videographer on board who captures this entire experience for your viewing pleasure. Honestly the boat got so wet and you’re concentrated on seeing sharks, that I didn’t even take our my own phone or pro camera once! So we opted to buy the footage (I believe it was around 30 USD), and it was worth it!

The divers that day

Once back on land (and after breathing a sigh of relief and swearing off boats for a solid year), we actually had worked up a hunger. Lunch was warm and tasty, while they played the video montage from that day on the screens. I purchased the photos and videos, and after that, it was time to head back to Cape Town (around 1:00 p.m.). On the journey back, the entire van was knocked out, including myself.

I may have dreamed of swimming with sharks on the ride back, but my memory is a bit hazy. Overall, it’s an experience I’m glad I did but don’t plan on doing ever again, unless I know the sea conditions are smooth, visibility is high, and my wetsuit fits like a glove!

Would you go diving with sharks? Share your experience or thoughts below!

travel

My most memorable hikes

IMG_3348

There’s something unique about hiking in the mountains – the fresh air, the varying altitude that at times can make you feel weird in your head, and of course the spectacular views. Above all, I found hiking to be symbolic of overcoming life’s obstacles: just keep going, one step at a time, don’t look back.

And so, ironically, in looking back at some memorable hikes I’ve done, there are three that really stand out in my memory:

  1. Rainbow Mountain, Peru
  2. Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa
  3. Preikestlolen, Norway

Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca) Peru

Cusco is probably best known as the base city for exploring the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. That is certainly true, but in addition to those marvelous places, there’s a challenging and exceptionally rewarding hike you can do to what’s called the Rainbow Mountain. There are plenty of tour operators who offer a day trip to do this from Cusco, starting at 3:00 am (yes, don’t expect to be well rested for this), when you are picked up from your accommodation and driven to the base camp for breakfast and meeting the hiking guides. If you can stomach any food (I apparently had no appetite at 4,300 meters or 14,000 feet), you get your energy and begin the hike. Definitely bring good hiking boots! We had a mix of snow and mud on our journey, which made for a slippery mess. You make your way to the highest and most rewarding point of the journey, Rainbow Mountain, standing at a staggering 5,200 meter or 17,000 feet. It’s impossible to put into words how impressive and stunning this journey is, and I loved that when I went in September 2016, there weren’t too many other hikers (especially when compared to the hoards of hikers at Machu Picchu). The mountains were snow-capped on the way up and already melted on the way down. And while I struggled to breathe the entire journey (I can’t tell if the cocoa leaves I was chewing helped or hurt me), I finished on my own without the help of a horse/donkey and porter. That said, if you do need some assistance, you’ve got plenty of chances to pay for a porter on the way. You’re back in Cusco by about 7pm that same day, and while thoroughly exhausted and sore, the sense of accomplishment is incomparable.

5,200 glorious meters stop Rainbow Mountain
The snowy ascent to Rainbow Mountain

Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa

So there’s good memorable and there’s bad memorable. For me, what seemed at the time as a brave and spontaneous decision to take the India Venster route up to Table Mountain, ended up being a bit of a lesson. I’m not a hardcore climber, and I had no idea what I would be facing when I decided to take this route up Table Mountain. I’m a fit and adventurous girl who decided to mountain climb by herself. Mind you, there’s a cable car that goes up in 3 minutes, or an alternative steady-paced hike in another direction, both of which end up at the top of Table Mountain. The India Venster route is for seasoned climbers, those who are prepared for extreme heights, no cables and can manage cloud, wind and some rain on the way up. I was not prepared for any of that, nor did I wear the proper shoes (trainers vs. hiking boots) – plus I began the hike at about 2:30pm, not even considering for a moment I might get stranded overnight without any cell phone signal. Nonetheless, I made it to the top in about 2.5 hours. I got lost a couple of times, even though the path is mostly marked with visible yellow tracks. I may have clung to a huge boulder mid-climb while a cloud passed over me, unable to tell which way was up. I may have cried for a minute and made a ‘If you find this video, I may be dead’ clip on my phone. No matter, I made it out unscathed! Seeing oblivious tourists at the top made me want to hug them tight but also scream with frustration. This hike is really tough, but I also don’t want to mislead the Kilian Jornet’s of the world who are pro’s at climbing. Just recognize what you’re going into, understand all the risks, don’t do it alone, bring plenty of water, and start early in the day. I am happy to report that I did, in fact, take the cable car down…

India Venster climb up Table Mountain
The taunting cable car that would pass above to Table Mountain

 

Preikestlolen “Pulpit Rock”, Stavanger, Norway

Norway is chock full of beautiful fjords and mountains – too many to list. But if you’re in Stavanger and have a free day, be sure to check out Pulpit Rock. There’s a convenient ferry that leaves from the Stavanger Marina and leaves you at Tau. From here, there are regular buses that take you to the begin the hike to Preikestolen. You can get return tickets to come back the same day. Be sure to pack a nice lunch and plenty of water/electrolytes to stay hydrated. I went on a rather rainy and windy day, so the rocks were extra slippery. I wouldn’t call this a difficult hike though, as people of all ages can go, including kids and elderly folks. The top, offering views of the fjords and the jutting rock that looks straight out of The Lion King, is one for the books. A pretty easy round trip, and when you’re back in Stavanger, treat yourself to a burger and beer. You’ve earned it!

Pulpit Rock “Preikestolen”
The fjord view