My heart lies in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. It is my birthplace and my spiritual home. I returned to the Eastern Cape with my fiancée Leasa, where we begin a journey through this drought-ravaged, parched landscape. Here we met with loved ones, moving along the coastal towns and villages to celebrate the festive season which commiserates with the loss of livestock and to re-kindle precious bonds. To leave Morgan Bay’s vast swathes of white sand, unpredictable ocean currents and rip tides that pound at the bases of dramatic cliffs where my forefathers’ ashes are strewn was more difficult than I could have ever imagined. After leaving Morgan Bay, our quest to push up into the unspoilt beauty of Sodwana continued.
The views of Sodwana Bay are some of the most mesmerising in the world. I had never been to Sodwana before and I can honestly say that it’s one of the most beautiful places I have visited. We stayed in the heart of iSimangaliso, an independent kingdom free of South Africa’s rules and regulations and one of the top dive sites in the world.
We met Pedro, Janu, Valentina and Sirreal at The Pizza Place in Sodwana on the first night, and quickly became woven into the fabric of this barefoot, wild coastal culture and its welcoming local community. The vibe of this place was relaxed, friendly and unpretentious. Phenomenal pizzas, cold beers and our spontaneous jamming session were the perfect backdrop to the first rains that had fallen since we had been in South Africa.
Our senses were zinging as we processed the earthy scents and the constant sounds of heavy raindrops. We silently gave thanks for the relief these rains would bring to all those we had left behind in the Eastern Cape – each drop representing kindness, life and love. Our hearts had been heavy with the weight that the drought had left on the locals as we had travelled through the Transkei. Nature was now in metamorphosis, soaking up the life-giving rain, transforming itself into green grass, overflowing waterholes and silvery river beds.
Our first impression of Sirreal was memorable. Despite his young age, the smiling, confident, and friendly 11-year old kitchen porter works as an equal in The Pizza Place. Yet, like so much else in this place, his appearance belied the truth of his situation. At the age of 9, Sirreal came to ask Janu and Pedro for a job so that he could help support his family. Within a year, this enterprising young boy had saved enough money to rent out the Pizza Place and to pay for all his friends and family to have a party. At just 11, his passions for conservation, community and the ocean are inspiring. His diving skills have been fostered by Pedro and he invests his savings into his family and diving equipment while he continues his own education by exploring the coast. The wonder and courage of the human spirit, even that young, continued to inspire my fiance and I.
A man named Simon welcomed us into his Sunrise Tavern on the outskirts of Sodwana. This little ‘shebeen’ had all the characteristics of a Western out-post saloon: roughly cut benches and tables, candles, iron grilles and a clientele of sober, even-tempered men who soon became drunk and belligerent as evenings became long nights. We saw symbolism around every corner, here no less than in the capricious, volatile nature of man and the sea.
Word amongst the locals was that there had been a dearth of game fishing in the area. So, we took to the air in a microlight flight along the coast to track the game fish. From that height, the reefs were awesome, giant scribbles on the ocean floor. The colours of the sea were a moving counterpane of azure, aquamarine and sapphire. Our hearts were hammering and our spirits high as we were filled with reverence for this astounding beauty. Nothing could stop us from venturing further along the coast.
Who better to go exploring this amazing coastline with than one of my oldest friends, Darren? For seven days, we travelled in his jeep North toward Mozambique, hunting out bases to trek, swim and dive from. Travelling this far north into the unmanned reserve does not come without its security concerns, both while on the road and camping. Having tactical strategies in place for possible eventualities and a constant awareness of your immediate environment is a necessity and a price paid for accessing this untouched coastline. iSimangaliso Wetland Park gave us the opportunity to get under some of the roughest waves that we had ever encountered. Darren, a seasoned master diver and all round ocean child, revelled in this amphitheatre of danger and drama. We sought refuge in the natural coves and holes, attempting to hide away from the washing machine effects of the waves. They bounced off the colossal reefs and climbed out of the depths of the massive drop-offs, threatening to scoop us out and toss us around like ragdolls. While dangerous, the moment was pure exhilaration.
On one of our calmer dives, we spotted a solitary manta ray, which was the first that Darren had seen in all the years diving along this coast. The sea and it’s deception…a different mask for every occasion and never more enigmatic than in these powerful, forceful, loving waves of the Southern African shoreline. We fell in turbulent love with the place, daily.
Rough seas, calm seas; the sea and it’s deception. The oceans seems to wear a different mask every time you enter, and it’s never more evident than in these powerful, forceful, loving waves of the Southern African shoreline. We fell in turbulent love with the place, daily.
Further down the KwaZulu Natal coast to the magnificent beaches of Balito just North of Durban, we met extraordinary fisherman with a love and zest for the ocean, the source of their livelihood and joy. One such character, Tarreck, did not seem to have the expected fear of creatures lurking below his small, fishing kayak. He only seemed a little phased when a 3m Bull Shark, also known as a Zambezi Shark, launched itself at his friend’s fragile vessel and tried to take him out, sideways! He was only too happy to return to the same spot of the attack, on the same day, to lead me to the pugnacious predator. His sound navigational skills dropped me above a boat wreck 400m beyond the shore break, where they had encountered the bull shark hours before. Tarreck sent me into the depths armed only with a camera, but unfortunately, we didn’t see or butt heads with the maniac.
As all itineraries tend to do, ours swung back on itself, pointing us, in the direction of The Pilansberg Game Reserve, a geological phenomenon. It is one of the largest volcanic complexes in the world. We were drawn not only to its spectacular scenery, but we also wanted to experience an area that was brought back to life through Operation Genesis, which re-stocked wildlife and reclaimed the land from human settlement in 1979. We wondered how to gain an overview of such a magnificent, vast area in a very short space of time. The answer was simple; by hot air balloon.
The air was particularly fresh, unsullied by neither heat nor dust. Our view from the basket was perfect! What struck us most was the disinterest of the animals as we floated above them. Moving without force, resistance or control, we noticed the zigzag patterns of the crocodiles’ prehistoric spines as they lazed in the waters below. In fact, there were patterns everywhere. The systems, order and constellations of nature had never before been so distinct and evident. The rains had transformed this landscape into a tapestry of rich hues and textures.
Leasa loved the close contact with the white and Bengal tigers in the Wild Predators’ Sanctuary, located in the Pilansberg National Park. Hand-reared, they were comfortable with her caresses and attention and these vulnerable, charismatic and fickle bundles of fur entranced us.
We were at the end of our journey, and it left us with profound, emotional and stirring memories; flickering and flying through our hearts and minds daily.
I cannot wait to return to my birthplace and my spiritual home…the Eastern Cape of South Africa.
This article originally appeared on Ocean Culture Life.