Monday, July 25, 2011

Experiences of a lifetime

If you want to connect with a person, you have to appreciate and respect their history. This goes for individuals and nations alike. It is not enough to travel to a place and see beautiful sites, eat wonderful food, and take home a souvenir, if you want to experience the culture you must step away from your own opinions and listen as they tell you of their own trials and sacrifices.
On Saturday, 16 July, I had the exceptional opportunity to visit Robben Island. This small island, just outside of Table Bay, is the location of a maximum security prison which housed political prisoners during Apartheid. It is where Nelson Mandela spent eighteen years of his life. And where many others who combated racial segregation spent the majority of their adult life.

Cell Seven - Nelson Mandela. 46664.
 And there I was. A young American, eighty-six hundred miles from home, sharing the experience with a South African who had never been to the island before. I tried to not think of blame, but instead I was intrigued by how any man could spend so much time in such conditions and not lose his sanity. It was very unique for me to just sit next to my friend and feel the range of emotions that came with this place. Perhaps a hint of shame for be associated with the group "responsible" but also a great deal of respect and admiration for the individuals who found the courage to hold on to their beliefs when everyone was against them.  No matter what your political beliefs may be you have to recognize that these men performed an incredible feat.

Up to sixty men would share this one room and a bathroom with only three showers.
 It was interesting for me to see some similarities between my own country and a country that is geographically so different. I kept coming back to my belief that we are all the same no matter what our country, color, or opinion. I challenge you to find any country in the world who has not struggled in some way, who's government has not made wrong decisions, or who's people who have not, on occasion, tried to suppress another group.

Robben Island has a diverse history that goes far beyond the prison itself. It was also home to a leper colony and utilized as a military base. It also has an incredible population of birds (about 132 different species) along with a variety of introduced plants.

Once our tour was complete, we returned to the mainland and enjoyed a late lunch at the waterfront. Then we headed up to Table Mountain, arriving on the top around 16:30. This was perfect timing because we were able to walk around and explore a little of the mountain before sitting at watching the sunset over the beautiful Atlantic swells. When we heard the bell signaling the last cable car we decided that it might be a better idea to hurry over and join the queue instead of getting stuck to walk down the mountain in the dark. Without a light. Or (in my case) a proper jacket. The good news is that we did not get left behind and were able to watch the last rays of the spectacular setting sun as we walked to the car.

I couldn't help but feel like I was on top of the world!

A beautiful end to a spectacular day!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Da dum ... da DUM.... dadumdadumdadum!!

Phenomenal. That is the best word I can come up with to describe this weekend!

It all started on Friday morning when I woke at 05:30 to drive to Gansbaai to go cage diving with White Sharks. I went with Nick and Gareth, who are MSc students from Rhodes University working in the HIK Abalone Farm, and Scotty. When we arrived at the White Shark Projects office we were warmly welcomed with a full spread breakfast, fresh coffee, and hot tea. Soon we were joined by the rest of the group. Following a briefing by our skipper, we donned life-jackets and walked down to the harbor where the boat was ready and waiting. It only took several minutes for everyone to get settled and before I knew it, we were on the water bouncing over the swells. It was a spectacular start to the day as the sun was just breaking over the horizon and filling the bay with color. This is the location of the famed “Shark Alley” where White Sharks are known for taking to the air in pursuit of seals. Interestingly, the sharks have been frequenting an area of the bay where they are normally only found in the summer months. So instead of heading over to “Shark Alley” and Dyer Island, we went to a spot closer to the mainland.  After dropping anchor, it was time to get suited up, organize the first group of divers, and start a chum line. The boys and I were fortunately in this first group. Before I had time to register what I was doing, someone yelled “Shark!!!” and we were climbing in to the cage that was lassoed to the side of the boat. The water was frigid! Despite the 7mm suite (which is the thickest wet-suite available) I could already feel the warmth leaving my feet. Of course, this is your least concern when a rather large Carcharodon carcharias glides past. It was magnificent! And the absolute antithesis of what the media leads you to expect out of these intriguing creatures – the attacking monster from the sea with rows upon rows of teeth aggressively reaching towards an innocent bather was not what I witnessed. Effortless grace, majestic beauty, and perhaps deceptive, calm. For being one of the largest fish in the ocean, they appear to exert no energy to glide through the water. It was one of the best twenty minutes of my life!  

The adventure of Friday morning was only the start of a wonderful weekend! After getting back to the intern house in the early afternoon, I get cleaned up and ready to go to a braai with some friends. Several people are celebrating birthdays in July so they had a joint get-together. I retold the story of our trip that morning several times throughout the evening. 

Saturday, I was able to see a little more of the beautiful SA coast as we took a drive up to Stellenbosch. We came around one curve and saw a breathtaking view of False Bay with a glimpse of Table Mountain way off in the distance. The sky was clear and the water beautiful, making for a wonderful day! 

Yesterday, we talked ourselves into going for a snorkel, a little hesitatingly for fear of the cold water. But were pleasantly surprised to find the water nice once we got in! We dived right here in front of SASC, around the Old Harbour. I almost jumped out of my wetsuit when I saw a Pajama Shark! Usually, they are nocturnal and avoid divers so I was excitedly taking pictures as he swam past! A few minutes later we watched an Octopus give chase to a crab! It was spectacular fun! There is so much to see here that it is hard to know where to start.

Pajama Shark!!



Haha! Not very flattering ... but what can I say?