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A South African Road Trip – Kruger to Cape Town – Part two.

July 25, 2011

Swaziland to Sodwana Bay

After a fantastic start to our trip in Limpopo and Swaziland, Ben and I travelled through the southern most border of Swaziland (Lavumisa) to join the N2 – the road that would take us all the way back to Cape Town. Before heading homewards however we decided to head further up the coast to Sodwana Bay. Besides the abundance of cane all over the roads, the road to Sodwana was fine and there is an opportunity to stock up on supplies at Hluhluwe – not the nicest town but it has a sizeable spar.

Sodwana Bay is within the Sodwana Bay national park and the surrounding waters are a marine protected area – the St Lucia MPA. This area forms a network of protected marine and wetland reserves (iSimangaliso Wetland Park (iWP)) in the area which extend all the way to the border with Mozambique – another place we’d love to visit but simply too far away for this trip.

We had arranged 1 night in a chalet and 2 nights in a safari tent as accommodation with Coral Divers – a dive resort inside the national park. We found Coral Divers online and, now that I own my own dive kit, were pleased to find that we could dive this winter for only R175 (about £15) for a standard dive – a great offer. There is the opportunity to camp at the national park campsites – it works out cheapest to stay inside the park rather than pay to come in each day) but the facilities at Coral Divers were very good and so the tent at R50 pppn represented good value. There were fridges to keep our food in, a boma braai area, a fully kitted kitchen area, free tea and coffee and we didn’t even have to do our own washing up! If you do want to visit it’s worth booking a little way in advance – booking even a month before had meant we’d had to take a more expensive chalet for one night as the tents were full. The diving side of the resort offers 2-3 dives daily which are planned each evening previous. If there are particular sites you want to dive it’s worth getting to the dive planning a little early. Whilst we were there mantas had been sighted at a particular site all week, so this one was very popular. There are options to cater for everyones diving needs including all PADI courses, open water, advanced and specialised dives, a full selection of kit to hire and a shop which is (thankfully) really well stocked in essential bits and pieces for divers.

The chalet was nice although we still had to share the washing facilities with the tents and with electricity available in the media area, I wouldn’t say it’s worth paying extra for the chalet (R150 pppn) over the tents. Both have beds and if you are a couple, you can push the beds in the tent together for a double – much nicer. We signed up for two dives the following day and enjoyed the well stocked bar. Morning dives start as early as 630 am depending on which site you are going to. We had opted for a more distant dive site at 7 mile reef which added an extra R40 supplement to our costs. The water temperatures this time of year are about 22 degrees = not as cold as Cape Town but still enough for at least a 5mm full wetsuit. We took the beach shuttle from the resort to the beach in prep for our dive with dive master Cheri – one of the best we had during our stay. Getting out to the dive sites in Sodwana is pretty exhilariting as the RIB’s have to dodge the breakers to get out in to the bay – a pretty fun experience even before you’re under the water. Unfortunately I’d been struggling with my chest and had problems with my new regulator and decided to call off my first dive after a botched negative entry attempt. Coral Divers were very understanding about this and kindly didn’t charge me for this dive. The afternoon went better, with a dive at a shallower 2 mile reef site (coral gardens) giving me the opportunity to make sure both my new reg and my lungs (!) were working properly!

Having early dives meant that we were free to enjoy beers around the pool in the sunshine whilst watching the vervet monkeys stealing ketchup bottles from the restaurant. Eating from the dinner and breakfast buffets at Coral Divers is not cheap (R170 each per day) but with the fantastic self catering facilities and cheap bar food there’s plenty of other options for the budget traveller. It was nice to come back from a dive and have some hot chips, nachos or a burger although there was sadly not enough vegetarian bar food on offer (I ended up with cheese bites that actually had chicken in (which I very much doubt was free range!)). As one often does when diving, we met plenty of interesting people to chat to and share dive stories and plans with and were happy to just relax the afternoons away with beers and a little work catch up.

Kit failure blighted our diving somewhat with my computer battery failing, my new octopus destroying an O-ring, Bens fin strap snapping and his first stage port going bust entirely! Whilst the young dive masters were mostly very good, the trainees/kit handlers on the beach/boats caused us some concern. We saw multiple examples of kit being lifted by the first stages, putting a ridiculous amount of pressure on a very expensive part of any scuba set up. This was inexcusable when most of the tanks (and the BCD’s) had handles on. We half wondered if our kit failures were the result of this poor handling and had to pay extra attention to our kit. Luckily between the well stocked shop and some helpful fellow divers and staff from the Coral Divers kit store we managed to get my occy working and fix Bens fin.

We dived a particularly good site on our 2nd day – “Hopscotch” – which had recently played host to the mantas most days. It was a diverse reef with lots of interesting critters including paper fish, frog fish and a ribbon eel. I didn’t see any manta but Ben and several of the others caught site of one in the distance just before surfacing. There were several other good sites including “Smarties” – a really healthy looking reef with lots of reef fish and “Ribbon” with some nice shoals of fish, ribbon eels and a huge potato bass!

Sodwana is a good place to see some of the big pelagic species that this part of the African coast is famous for. Aside from the manta on our Hopscotch diver we also came across dolphins and a whale shark on the boat trips back to shore. We were really impressed with the boat captains who, besides being awesome at crashing the boats through the breakers and on to the beach, were very professional with respect to the diving and the animals. Duncan, who was our skipper for several dives, was very understanding about my kit problems and, taking note of encounter guidelines, took us away from the whale shark when it was crowded by snorkellers.

All in all it was a nice few days diving, which at R3900 for the two of us including beers, diving (10 dives between us), spare kit hire/purchase, snack food and souvenirs, was great value. Aside from the kit problems I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a visit to Sodwana and Coral Divers for any diver. I would love to visit in the warmer, summer months, the weather and water was warm enough but for a cold blooded person like me I’d much prefer the near tropical temperatures!

Our final day in Sodwana was fairly hectic, with two morning dives followed by a race to pack up the car and try and get out of KZN to the Wild Coast and the Eastern Cape…

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