Sunday, March 21, 2010

Great white shark cage diving in Gaansbai, South Africa

As a long-time scuba diver and shark lover, there was nothing more exhilarating than the thought of getting up and close to the big blue’s ultimate apex predator, the great white shark. One of the best times and places to do this is the dead of winter at one of the earth’s most southern points off the coast of Gaansbai, South Africa - just 165 kilometers from Cape Town. Southern Africa was a region of the world I had always wanted to explore but seeing the great whites was without a doubt one of the major draws to this part of the world so I ensured that this was the first activity I booked on my trip. After surfing the web for a couple of organizations that offered caged shark diving, I finally resolved to go with Sharklady. So I booked myself two days of diving on their boat, got my flight on Etihad Airways from Abu Dhabi and headed down to one of the worlds most picturesque and invigorating cities, Cape Town.

After a couple of days exploring Cape Town, or Kaapstad as the Afrikaans call it - then came the day. I got up well before the crack of dawn, at precisely 4 o’clock in the morning and was picked up by the driver. We made the two hour drive all the way down to Gansbaai where we were met with our dive master, boat crew, other divers for the day and the Sharklady herself, Kim McLean. After a short briefing, we were soon in the boats and on our way out to sea. After about half an hour out at sea, we arrived near the shark alley channel near Dyer Island and Geyser Rock – which is amazingly covered by tens of thousands of cape fur seals. It’s the blubbery seals that attract the great whites so the boat stopped, the crew began hauling chum in the water and before we knew it we were surrounded by not one but six humongous great white sharks. Within no time, the cage was lowered into the water and the dive master asked pointed my way and said, “You first!” I threw my wetsuit on and reluctantly stepped into the cage in the freezing cold water and was soon joined by three other shark-divers.

Seeing these majestic, yet deadly creatures up close was surreal and quite simply spectacular. The sharks circled the boat and came right up to the cage. As they majestically swam past and bit at the chum the boat crew was dangling, it seemed as though they were putting on a perfectly choreographed show for us divers, almost posing for our underwater cameras. However, as time went by, we noticed the sharks beginning to become increasingly feisty and gradually more curious in us divers in the cage. When the sharks started banging the cage, that was when the divemaster decided that enough was enough. “Okay guys, let’s call it a day!” he yelled. However, it was too late…. before we knew it, there was a huge bang, everything shook and pieces of metal flew everywhere – a great white had actually broken the cage to pieces! “EVERYONE OUT OF THE WATER!!!!!!” screamed the divemaster.

Realizing our steel fortress had been shattered, pandemonium assumed as us four divers fought to scramble back into the boat. “Take my hand!” yelled one of the crew. But just as our fingers were making contact, suddenly I felt a huge tug from under the water, a flash of light and then a venomous, sharp stinging pain crept from my left leg and up through my entire body. When I came to, I looked downwards and could see a cloud of reddish-purple spreading throughout the water around me. Then I saw out of the corner of my eye, a great white swimming away with something in its mouth – it was a foot …. my foot! The pain was so overbearing that I went numb inside, I began to pass out, I could just barely hear cries of ; “SHARK ATTACK!!!”,“It’s got his leg!” coming from the boat above me. I began to gasp and panic to keep myself afloat when suddenly I saw the dreaded site of a long, pointed shark fin coming closer and closer at a speed I couldn’t fathom and then all of the sudden, from out of the water sprung the robust snout and the open jaws of a mammoth great white shark… I helplessly stared in awe of the rows of razor shark blood-stained white teeth that were aiming straight for me when all of the sudden….

… There was nothing but darkness. I could hear the sound of a familiar yet irritating, “Brrp! Brrp! Brrp!” getting louder and louder. I thought to myself, “Where am I? Am I dead? Is this heaven? Is this hell? Am I inside the stomach of a great white shark?” As I came to I could hear the sound getting louder and louder and suddenly I recognized it… it was the sound of my mobile phone’s alarm clock! “Had the shark also eaten my mobile phone as well?” I asked myself. Then I heard the sound of wood banging and a voice in Afrikaners-accented English … “Mr. Stevens, Mr. Stevens, wake up, wake up, the drivers here – time to go shark diving.” I then realized it – it was all just a bad dream, a customary pre-great white shark cage diving nightmare. I jumped out of bed, checked to make sure all my limbs were there and sure enough – no blood, no severed leg. I breathed a sigh of relief and made my way to Gansbaai for my shark dive.

The dives went pretty much as described above…. of course, without the cage breaking. In fact, I felt surprisingly at ease in the cage. The great whites came ever so close and occasionally knocked the cage but never once did I ever feel as if my life was in danger. Even the fear of catching hypothermia in the freezing cold waters where the Atlantic and Oceans meet turned out to be nonsensical thanks to Sharklady’s splendid 7mm hooded-wetsuits. As a diver and shark-lover, great white shark cage diving in Gansbaai will most certainly rank amongst my greatest all-time underwater adventures.

Of course there was much more to do in Cape Town than just shark diving. When I returned from Gansbaai, I tried to take a hike/ride up Table Mountain; however, due to weather conditions, I had to settle for the smaller Lion’s Head. I also took tours to the Cape of Good Hope, where we saw ostriches and penguins even. A grimmer, yet just as essential trip to the poverty-stricken Cape Flats townships where we visited a local witch doctor and caught a glimpse of the daily strife the vast majority of the city’s population lives in. Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and many other South African revolutionary figures spent years imprisoned, was another revealing stop. Cape Town in also a city of culinary-delights and I quite simply could not get enough of the staple ostrich burgers. Not to be missed of course was a trip out to the countryside to sample the country’s famous wineries. While I strongly recommend taking a wine tour while in Cape Town - taking one day before catching an early morning is not so advisable. And it was from there that I took my Southern African adventure onwards to Botswana.

While I would have loved to have shared the hundreds of inspiring photos I took while in the Cape Town and the Western Cape region, I somehow managed to misplace my memory stick containing them somewhere between Lusaka and Lilongwe. So you’ll just have to make do with these underwater captures. If you happen to be in the area and stumble upon a black Sony Memory Stick packed with photos of Cape Town, Botswana & Victoria Falls.. well, you know where to send it! Then again you never know, maybe the memory stick is somewhere in the belly of a great white shark!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Qatar Stars League: Al Gharfa 4-1 Al Sadd


So the 2009-2010 Qatar Stars League football season went down to the wire. With only two games left, national giants Al Gharafa and Al Sadd found themselves only 2 points apart with Al Gharafa hosting Al Sadd in the penultimate match a week before the season ended. With both teams facing relatively easy final games and sweeping pretty much everyone else in the league, this match would ultimately decide the 2010 season champion. A win would clinch the title for Al Gharafa giving current 2 times champions an unassailable 5 point lead with one game remaining, a draw would still suit Al Gharafa meaning they’d win the title with a win in the final game so the onus really was on Al Sadd to turn the table on its head.

With Al Sadd and Al Gharafa having won the last 7 Qatari league championships and having a total of 18 title wins between them, this truly was a contest for national supremacy. If I was going to catch a local league game while here in Qatar – this was most definitely the one to see and with Al-Gharafa’s Thani bin Jassim Stadium located just two blocks down from my house there really was no excuse not to catch this one.
The Qatar Stars League has become a place for many stars in the twilight of their careers to make one last paycheck before hanging up their boots with the likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Marcel Desailly, Frank & Ronald De Boer, etc. all playing here. The highest profile player on display today was Gharafa’s ex-Lyon player Juninho Pernambucano, who made 40 international appearances for Brazil, representing them in the 2006 world cup. Unfortunately, Juninho’s trademark free kicks were not on display on the day. However, it was his Brazilian counterpart Clemerson de Ara├║jo Soares, formerly o f Cruzeiro, who gave Al Gharafa the lead before Al Sadd’s Brazilian star Leandro equalized just before halftime. With Al Sadd needing to win to have the upper hand in the title race, they were made to push forward in the second half leaving their backline exposed, which Gharafa duly exploited. Saoud al-Shammari restored Gharafa’s lead before Iraqi star Younis Mahmoud hit a late double to kill off the tie and give Al Gharafa their third title in a row – 7th overall.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Zambia 2009 - South Luangwa National Park

Although Kenya's Masa Mara and South Africa's Kruger Park take the plaudits for Africa's most visited safari parks, a hidden gem located up the northeastern corner of Zambia is the South Luangwa National Park. South Luangwa is a bit off the beaten track but this; therefore, it lacks the hoardes of packaged tourists that throb the aforementioned two national parks.. You can either fly in on a chartered flight from Kampala or (Malawi's) Lilongwe or take the arduous two day road trip from Kampala which includes a night's stop in Mufe. I opted for the latter although I nearly bit the bullet and caught a flight on to Lilongwe given the rigorousness of the ride before a Dutch couple residing in Mozambique offered me a free lift back to Mufe. Those brave enough to make the journey however will be glad they did as South Luangwa is simply stunning. This is perhaps the best place in the world to catch a glimpse of the 'big 5' as elephants roam, lions feed, buffaloes bask, hippos laze and even leopards stalk here. In fact, this is a fantastic place to get a glimpse of the elusive leopard - perhaps the hardest of the big 5 to spot.
Although I can't speak for other campsites in the region, the Lonely Planet Guide's recommended Flatdogs Camp is a great choice. Their luxury tents are situated right on the Luangwa River, overlooking the national park and while you may need a permit to cross over into the animal's territory, they don't need one to come into yours. This only adds to the magical experience as elephants, giraffes and even the odd hippopotamus roam freely between the tents. And as you sleep, you can hear the sound of something munching at the trees just outside your tent! They offer morning & night drives as well as walking safaris. I intended to stay a night but wound up camping for three, taking a morning drive, a walking safari and two night trips. The highlights of these being seeing a pride of lions devour an elephant, almost getting killed by an angry pack of buffalo and of course spotting not one, but three leopards after numerous attempts to spot one in various parks throughout Africa.
One of the most difficult things about the trip was trying to decide which photos from South Luangwa would or wouldn't make the site. I wound up with over 250 photos from only two days of safaring so after endless hours of rummaging through the hordes of shots I took, these are the ones chosen for display. Perhaps the best way to see these animals though is to go to South Luangwa yourself! To view the rest of the photos from this trip, check out my main site @:
http://www.glennstevens.biz/zambia.htm

The photos can also be accessed through this public Facebook link:
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=396670&id=544535404&l=e910101d73