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OK, better late than never. Yvonne Blume asked the question on D-net about holiday destination options for March 2003. So here's what I came back with to give you a flavour (in the abscence of two individual dive reports) of the above sites.

[Yvonne wrote]:

" After a very fluey Xmas, my brain still isn't working properly, so maybe someone else's is....

Where can I go in March that is:

1.)Hot, and I don't mean, luke warm, I mean temp's in the 30s
2.)No monsoons, cyclones or other frequent freak weather occurrances
2.)Less than 10-hours flight time
3.)Ideally I'd like to go on a liveaboard as I'll be travelling alone
4.)NOT Egypt, Sudan, Thailand, Oz (more than 10 hours anyway), or anything in a warzone
5.)and obviously I'd like the diving to be good too.

Any bright ideas much appreciated,

Yvonne

P.S. Anyone have any experiences with Pemba, and/or knows of any Liveaboards in KwaZulu Natal area? Bren? "

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And this is my response:


Hey Yvonne,

A couple of options spring to mind actually. I've not done Pemba or anywhere like Kenya or Lake Malawe type stuff yet, but can recommend the diving off KwaZulu-Natal coast big time!

If you try Punta De Oro in Mozambique, the waters should be in the mid to late 20's 'C - you'll be hitting the late summer there (high summer - even as far down as Cape Town - can be scorching!) and the sea-life is tremendous. Good opportunity of diving with Whale Sharks too. You're a little too early in March for the 'Sardine Run', as that happens between May/June/July most years.

Further down the coast in South Africa, you've got Sodwana Bay (diving within the confines of the National Marine Park) with its 2 mile, 5 mile, 7 mile and 9 mile reefs. There are lots of other reefs dotted in amongst these, so you'll have plenty to go at. Sharks, sponges, swim-throughts, caves, overhangs - the works. Whilst here, you can also take advantage of the 2nd highest natural sand dunes in the world (they form a barrier running the whole length of Sodwana's coastline) and take midnight horse-rides (if that's your thing - we did) along the beach when the moon is on the full. Breath-taking. You've also got a choice of two Game Reserves (one being the outstanding 'Schleschluwe'). Nearest Chamber - just for your info - is in Richards Bay, some 2 to 4 hours away, depending on the roads.

If you're going to travel to SA, then I would highly recommend building in to your trip both Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks in addition to Sodwana Bay.

Aliwal Shoal (Unkomas) has a choice of gorgeous reefs and some top shark dives: Raggie Caves and The Cathedral being just two off the bat. With the exception of Tobago, I've never seen such a proliferation and diversity (and number) of natually occuring sponges of all differing hues.

Here too you have two very good wrecks: the Nebo and the Produce. Both in the 30 metre range and both well worth diving. Inside the bridge of the Nebo, it is a wall of fish (a mixture of silvers, oranges and yellows) which can sometimes block out the light - which is good, even at depth. She is on her starboard side and broken in two - this making for an errie traverse of her holds and quarters. The Produce is much more broken up, but her plates still hold many a surprise in terms of sea-life and looking at the layout of a much older wreck.
Wacth your depth here, as we did both wrecks in the same day and this 'bounce-diving' (surface intervals were kept to a minimum) to 30+ gave us 12 mins deco on 21% on this dive.

And then you've got Protea Banks - Good Lord! Let's just say that no one dives the Banks for the reefs (nice though they are). I have never seen some many sharks (in both number and variety) on one dive in my life. You will regularly (unless you request otherwise) be bounce-diving to over 35 - 45 metres here. Straight off the RIB (or 'Rubber Ducks', as they are known is this part of the world) and a racing descent to an assemblage point just above the reef. Then just wait and hang with current. Our 1st dive was so-so, but on the 2nd, all #### broke loose!!

We had been oggling at families of Ribbon-tail Rays, Guitar Sharks, Angel Sharks, Raggie-tooth Sharks, and a few Grey Reef Sharks when we saw three sites that will live with us for long time. A solitary Ocean-going (or Oceanic) White-tip Shark (not a Great White) hove into view - apparently a rare sight, as they usually stay deep during the day and ascend to lesser depths to feed by night. Then we saw two Bronze Whaler Sharks (a complete bonus) and then IT happened.

At least 100 Hammerhead Sharks (photies to prove it) came sreaming in from our six-o'clock whilst we were on a safety stop at 12 metres. They are quite inquisitive beasts and a goodly number kept darting out of the ever moving mass and popping back to give us a look over before disappearing back in the throng. Awsome. Highly recommended. Apparently, although we didn't see any, it's not uncommon to see the odd Tiger Shark there too.

We went in November and we took our semi-dries with us with a shortie undersuit and were toastie warm. SA and M'bique are withing your 10/11 hour flight window too.

If you want somewhere that's nary a hop-skip-n-jump away (in terms of flying time, say 8 or 9 hours), I can highly recommend Oman. The water in June was a glorious 36 degrees C with air temps of 46 degrees! March should be a lot more manageable.

Virtually virgin (am I allowed to say that here?), the sheer weight of sea-life never ceased to amaze us. Sharks, turtles and my favourite (which I'd never seen before) Devils Rays - herds of them, massive and up close and personal. They are not remotely used to (or scared of) divers and this results in them coming up and swimming with you as it must be a novelty for them to see you. They are massively gently and a pleasure to watch as they conduct their sub-aquatic ballets.

Being in the Arabian Sea, as opposed to the Indian Ocean, the hard coral was completely untouched by El Nino/Nina and there's tons of it, of all shapes, sizes and colours: table coral of unfeasably large proportions, antler coral still sharp and colourful and walls, reefs and swim-throughs in profusion. The only thing the Omani government needs to get its act together on is the lack of wrecks that are open to be dived. There are plenty of them, it's just the 'right permits need to be acquired', for that read the correct palms need to be greased by your dive centre, not always an easy task.

Places to dive here are Bandar Kharan, Al Sawadi, for the Daymaniyat Islands, and Musandam.

Any way, hope this gives you some ideas. If you need any more, please just give me a shout off-line.

Cheers and enjoy.

Bren.
 

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OK, just so you can get another view on this place, other than John Gulliver's and my own - check out Mark Williams' dive report from South Africa and Mozambique. This just blagged from his report on Divernet:

Dated today [Mark wrote]:


" Out of Hackney and Into Africa.

Desperate to escape the cold gloom and hassle of xmas in the UK and desperate to get some decent quality diving in, we decided to head South of the equator this Christmas and see what South Africa had to offer. The plan was to spend two weeks diving in three separate locations Sodwana Bay, Ponta Do Oura (Mozambique) and finally the famous Aliwal shoals.

Arrangements duly made, we flew out of a cold and grey Heathrow in the early hours of 19th December and the next morning arrived in a hot and humid Durban where we picked up our hire car and headed North for 4 hours to our first destination Sodwana Bay. Sodwana is a one of a number of world heritage sites in South Africa and is a national park. Most accommodation other than camping lies outside the park boundaries but ours was one of the only lodges to be located within the park nestling in the coastal forest with all its resident wildlife. As we arrived in the late afternoon, we did not have chance to check out the beach at Jesser point from where all the dive boats launch but arranged to meet up with the dive operation in the bar that evening to sort out our diving.

6:30 the following morning, yes that’s right 6:30AM saw the first launch. Due to the prevailing Easterly winds the sea tends to kick up in the late morning and early afternoon whilst the best conditions are early in the morning. This may sound a bit daunting, after all we were on holiday, but it is not as bad as it sounds. The trick is to switch over to African time immediately, get up early in the morning and go to bed relatively early in the evening. As the diving is pretty much restricted to the AM it leaves the afternoon free for other activities, of which South Africa has many on offer.

We had arranged to be picked up by the dive company in the beach car park as only four by fours are allowed on the beach. My first glimpse of Jesser point reminded me of the Normandy beach landings without the gunfire. 4x4s, Ribs, Tractors, trailers etc where everywhere. We threaded our way through the chaos to Amoray diving’s gazebo on the beach where we began kitting up. I took the time to have a quick look at the sea conditions and although early in the morning the surf was still pounding. “It looks a bit rough today,” I said to the skipper Andre. “Rough” he said, “This isn’t rough, just wait till later on” he grinned.

Now is probably a good time to explain South African launch procedures. Unlike the UK where the process tends to be a sedate, turn up at the dock and just climb aboard onto a RIB/hardboat and off you go type affair the South African version is far more hands on. First, it is all hands to the pumps to haul the RIB into the sea with all gear already on board. Once just in the water, “ladies and hairdressers” are invited on board, the blokes continue to push the boat into slightly deeper water whilst keeping the bow pointing into the surf. As soon as everyone is on board, lifejackets are donned and the skipper tells us “to put our feet into the foot loops on the deck, hang on tight and try not to cry”. With this cheery message he guns the throttles and the twin 85HP outboards hurl the craft through the surf and out into the open sea.

The reefs at Sodwana are some of the most Southerly coral reefs in the world and are formed on the fossilised remains of sand dunes and are called respectively quarter mile, two mile, five mile, seven mile and nine mile. The fish life on the reefs is amazing with the usual assemblage of reef fish, together with beautiful honeycomb morays, Southern Stingrays, electric rays, Marbled Rays Mantas, turtles even whalesharks and dolphins the list goes on and on. Water temperature was a perfectly acceptable 27 degrees and the visibility ranged from 15 – 25metres. Most of the dive sites lie within a range of between 18 and 24metres with a couple of deeper sites at 30m plus. This brings me to another curiosity of South African diving, they all dive on 10 litre steel cylinders. In fact finding 12 litres can be a bit of a problem and 15 litres you can forget.

The diving is relatively easy and as currents are relatively common most dives are done as a gentle drift. Getting back to shore however is anything but gentle. Again lifejackets are donned, feet slipped back into footloops and as soon as one large wave set has passed (Boat proud skippers should turn away at this point) the skipper heads at full throttle for the shore beaching the rib at full speed. This results in the marine equivalent of an emergency stop and unless you obey the instructions to hold on tight, the result is an undignified tangled pile of divers in the bottom of the boat. (I suppose it is a good way to break the ice "lovely to meet you but do you mind removing your bum from my face!"

The next few days passed in a blissful blur of diving and filming in the early morning and spending the afternoons basking by the pool or visiting some of the nearby game reserves. The highlight of Sodwana Bay for me had to be diving with the Ragged tooth sharks. These fearsome looking but relatively harmless beasts assemble at quarter mile reef to give birth having spent most of the year feeding further South. We were lucky enough to dive with a guy called Neville from Reefteach who is the recognised expert on “raggies” and in fact anything to do with the marine environment at Sodwana. Access to the raggies is strictly controlled and with a permit secured we headed off for our dose of Adrenalin. No sooner had we reached the bottom at about 15m, ghostly shapes started to appear on the limit of the visibility, about 10m on this occasion. Curiosity aroused, these magnificent fish swam towards us only turning away at the last instant. If you ever wanted to know what a sharks tonsils look like, let me know, and I can show you photos! At about 3-4 metres in length the sharks make an impressive sight on their own but having four or five circling at any one time together with guitar sharks and rays scooting along the bottom at the same time makes a dive on quarter mile during the raggie season a truly unforgettable experience.

Sodwana has other non diving activities on offer including micro light flights at an unbelievable £20 for an hours flight, horse riding, game fishing, wildlife walks, quad biking as well as easy access to some of the best game parks in the country.

Our five days in Sodwana quickly passed and it was time to pack up and head off to the Mozambique border about an hours drive from Sodwana. We had been warned about the border in that it was horribly beureaucratic and corrupt; in fact we were even advised by one person to place a 100 Rand note in the first passport to help secure a hassle free border experience.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I have been across a few borders over the years and always approach border crossings with some degree of nervousness, but I have to say that I have rarely found a more relaxed crossing (with the exception of Ambergris quay in Belize but then everything is relaxed there). The border guards even let me drive across the border to drop our luggage off to await our pickup before driving back into S.A to leave our car at the secure parking area. We had arranged to be picked up at the border as we had only hired a two-wheeled drive vehicle in South Africa and had been advised that a four-wheel drive was essential for Mozambique. How true that advice was. The Road literally ends at the border and the main road to Maputo (capital of Mozambique is just a deep sandy track heading off over the coastal plain).

Janice, our host for the next 5 days duly appeared and bags loaded onto the pickup we duly bounced along over the dunes for the 20 min drive to Ponta Do Oura. The recent history of Mozambique is a sad one of a beautiful and successful country torn apart by a long and bitter civil war and although 10 years have now passed and the country has made great inroads in re-establishing itself, the scars still show in the number of still abandoned buildings. This may make the place sound a bit bleak but actually the opposite is true and although a small place, Ponta has a number of bars restaurants etc and generally very happy and friendly people. Our hosts Janice and Theresa could not do enough for us, and although the lodge was relatively small, catering for up to 20 people the atmosphere was incredibly friendly and the service positively first class.

The diving was not dissimilar to that at Sodwana bay but probably with a greater variety of smaller life, octopus, leaf fish, scorpion fish, devil fire fish etc and some of the most relaxed turtles that I have dived with to date. Despite being Christmas (the major holiday season in S.A) the pace was slower than at Sodwana. Unfortunately for us the weather was not the kindest and the swell picked up which prevented us from visiting some of the more distant dive sites which are home to Hammerheads, Zambezis and some enormous potato bass. Despite this slight disappointment
the diving was again relaxed and fun. Apart from diving, relaxing, eating and drinking there is not that much to be done in Ponta although it is very easy to lose a few days diving, relaxing and even taking a few walks along the beach to spot nesting turtles. Dolphins again are very common and it is not unusual for the dive boats to be accompanied by a school of spinner dolphins. There are a couple of dolphin study groups based at Ponta who will take you out to snorkel with them although we did not have an opportunity to do this. Likewise the local lakes are home to a population of Hippos and Crocodiles and there is a small private game reserve. We were very sad when it came time to leave for our final destination but having said our goodbyes and having promised to return we headed off for the long drive back down South to the Aliwal shoals.

The Aliwal shoals are ingrained in diving legend as one of the top places to dive in South Africa and during the Sardine run and Raggie season ie from June to September that may well be the case but December is not the time to be there. We had planned to stay for 5 days in Umkomaas (the closest place to the shoal which lies about 8km offshore) however it has to be said that after our previous two locations Umkomaas to us was a bit of a disappointment. As the diving was not up to that much either we decided to cut our losses and checked out to spend our last 3 days at a private game reserve about an hour West of Durban in the company of Giraffe, Zebra, Rhinos, Hippos, Wildebeest etc etc. before flying back to the UK.

Did we enjoy our African adventure? Definitely! Would we go back? Absolutley! When are we going back? As soon as possible! "



Told ya - a magical place, isn't it? And I think he was damned unfortunate in Aliwal Shoal (Umkomaas); Fiona and I had some outstanding diving here: reef, shark and wreck. Wrong time of year for Mark?? Never mind, sounds like the rest of his trip was superb (just as we remember it) and that he's wanting to go back some time in the future.
 
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