South Africa Dispatch series

Travel Weekly senior editor David Cogswell departed for South Africa on March 21 to begin an eight-day trip sponsored by South African Tourism. David will be exploring "Africa beyond the safari," particularly South Africa's cultural health and sociopolitical environment 13 years after the end of apartheid. He'll be filing on-site reports to Travel Weekly's Web site on a daily basis (Internet access permitting).

Our day in Grootbos offered a number of things to do, including lounging on the deck overlooking the Indian Ocean or in the cottages, enjoying the pool, hiking around the grounds, going on a guided hike or drive around the nature reserve or going on a boat ride to view sea life.

I joined a group of nine people who chose to take a boat ride to Dyer Island with Dyer Island Cruises in nearby Gansbaai, the company that holds the whale watching permit for the area from Danger Point to Quoin Point. We were on the lookout for bottlenose and humpback dolphins, sharks, Cape Fur Seals, African Penguins (formerly known as jackass penguins because they sport a bray that sounds like a donkey) and a wide variety of other sea animals and birds of the area.

Whale season stretches from July to December, and there are many Southern Right Whales as big as 40 tons to be seen. In fact, we were told, you can see them from the sun deck at the Grootbos lodge. But in March, we learned, there are no whales to be seen.

For hearty and adventurous souls, Dyer Island Cruises offers shark cage diving, which requires no particular training or licensing because no scuba gear is involved. The cage that protects you from attack stays near the surface.

We were prepped for the ride, bundled up in bulky orange rain coats and life jackets and practically waddled down to the water of Kleinbaai Harbor for our departure. We felt absurdly overdressed in the heat, but were told it would be much different when we got out to sea.

We climbed into the boat, the Whale Whisperer, which was mounted on a trailer backed into the water by a tractor. The captain charged up the motor and we sped off into a sea that became choppier and choppier, though less crowded, as we moved beyond the harbor.

We saw dolphins right away, and they came close to the boat, playfully flirting with us, but a wreckless speedboat came charging up alongside us and scared them away. Our captain chewed the crew of the other boat out loudly and we continued outward to where the recreational boats thinned out.

Our ultimate destination was a strait between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock known as Shark Alley. We saw some sharks along the way, but the main attraction at Shark Alley is a colony of about 60,000 Cape Fur Seals, who were having a good old time. We were warned that we would smell them before we saw them, and it was true. We encountered a pungency of a high order, something you miss entirely on the Discovery Channel. It made one question the necessity of breathing.

The star of the show was an old bull seal who had caught himself an octopus and was throwing it around with great abandon as he tore it to pieces, apparently quite proud of himself and enjoying the meal thoroughly. Our captain told us the seal throws the octopus to gain the leverage he needs to break off pieces into bite-sized chunks, similar to the way humans use a knife and fork.

The trips are planned to be about an hour to an hour and a half long. Ours was on the short side because what started as a smooth ocean became unusually rough, and the ride became increasingly unpleasant. Eventually the captain told us he was turning back before even the crew got sick.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].


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