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South Africa, Sardine Run

“I will be spending an arm and a leg so that I may swim with live sardines.”

After convincing my family that I have not lost another marble, I packed my bags for South Africa with little idea what adventure laid ahead of me; save a sketchy impression from BBC Nature. Fast forward two weeks later and I am now sitting at home taking a quiet moment to let the whole experience marinate inside. I find myself still catching my breath from the residue of awe, thrill, exhilaration and memories that will manifest stories over a beer for many years to come.

We dived with Blacktip and Spinner sharks. It was not so much about having a school of sharks brushing against our wetsuits that made us jittery, but it was the pre-dive briefing that made us feel like we were about to jump into a scene from a Spielberg production.

“If you do not stand your ground, they will bite you.”

“If you turn around, they will bite you.”

“If you wear anything reflective, they will bite you.”

“If you don’t yell at them (as Jessica did), they will bite you.”

The pre-dive briefing served as a timely reminder that we were entering feral territory. Mustering a nice blend of courage and curiosity, we back-rolled into the waters with 30 awaiting sharks. Once the nerves calmed however, it surfaced a realisation of how majestic and elegant these creatures were. Fear paved way to awe, and quietly transcended to reverence.

Incidentally, days after our shark dive, we received news that a marine biologist was bitten by a wandering Dusky Shark. It was at the same site we dived. The diver survived, but he lost his right calf. News of that incident invited a surreal feeling; one not of fear, but of solemn respect. It is a respect that shall dwell within us for future scuba diving endeavours.

And there was the Sardine Run – It was no longer YouTube clips that we catch glimpses of during lunch breaks; or snippets of NatGeo Wild on late-night cable. We were there! We were there to soak in the majesty of nature’s wonder – we were witnesses to an oceanic concerto; a marine orchestra of predators and prey.

Thousands of dolphins surrounded our boat. The skies darkened with birds (Cape Garnets) and pots of Humpbacks and Bryde’s Whale scattered across the beating waves. The sardines appeared. What was placid at first exploded into a mad feeding frenzy – synchronized whistling of dolphins sparked coordinated attacks; Garnets bombed into the waters in a ferocious air-raid; Cormorants frantically preyed on sardines that broke away from the shoal; lurking Copper Sharks and an occasional Dusky would make their appearance from deep; one in particular took a bite at our skipper; he was fine with only some teeth marks on his scuba tank which he showed off in a booming laughter. We hugged our underwater camera and video sets and hastily put the hardware to work. Nevertheless, no footage would capture the personal experience of being spectators to the greatest show (or shoal) on Earth.

The afternoons were spent rejuvenating the sea legs and experiencing South Africa beyond the oceanic stage. We rode horses (although YP’s noble stead resembled a donkey) across vast beaches and trod over coastal hills. We did a little Safari drive-through, although we shamelessly took more pictures of ourselves than of the animals. We hiked (actually a 10 mins walk) across rivers, leapt over boulders (okey, they were small gaps in between) for a panoramic view of towering waterfalls. Boon was particularly pleased with his aviation exchanges with Larry, our microlight pilot, who took us on a scenic flight over Mbotyi, the Wild Coast. We had a spiritual encounter with the village witch doctor (Jessica even did a little dance with the lucky bugger). We gave away lollies to the village children who beamed with such joy that it warmed our hearts albeit the wintery winds.

So as I sit here in reminiscence of the two-week trip, I am confident that I didn’t lose any marbles over my decision to visit South Africa. I had an adventure of a lifetime. We lost some stuff, as travellers would; a dive knife; an orange fleece; a pair of a sunglasses during a break-in (yes, there was a notable incident of a burglary); an underwater camera (the drama of it is best left for the owner to share himself); a carton of cigarettes (YP’s tragedy of the trip); and a box of disposal underwear (all in ascending order of importance).

In retrospect, what we have lost pales into an insignificant footnote in comparison with what we have gained. Perhaps as how my dive buddy, YP articulates,

“now there will be more volume (literally), when we speak about diving.”

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