Saturday, 22 September 2012

Shark Cage Diving in Mossel Bay, South Africa

Shark Diving in Mossel Bay

There are many places to shark dive along the coast in the Western Cape but we decided on White Shark Africa in the end, didn't hurt that Louis knew the brother of the owner who pretty much started the shark diving craze.

With the usual beatuiful weather associated with the Cape, we got on board the boat with the rest of the group and headed out to open water in the general direction of Seal Island, some 15 minutes away.

Once there, we dropped anchor and the guides started throwing the sardine chum over the side and prepared the cage, lashing it to the side of the boat, and from there it was just a waiting game for the sharks to arrive.

Hopefully this boat will suffice
Putting the cage in
Seal's where the seals live

With it being the ocean you can't guarantee the presence of a Great White immediately; sometimes one could turn up after five minutes, other times, such as our case, they can take their sweet time about making it to the boat. Two hours to be precise.

Now, with the excitement of getting in the cage and seeing the sharks in their natural element, the wait shouldn't have been too difficult. However, there was a serious swell and the wine from the previous day was threatening to spoil things for me so I decided to just get in the cage and wait in the water. Much better than being on the boat.

After quite some time I was a little worried there would be no action at all until suddenly the other people on the boat shouted "SHARK RIGHT". Only myself and another guy were in the cage at the time and we got a great view as the bait, a tuna head, was chased down by the shark which came to within a metre or so of the cage.

They tried again with the bait but the shark didn't seem interested and so the guide reeled the bait in. I wasn't looking in that direction at the time but as the bait reached the wall of the cage the Great White smashed right into the side of the cage, all teeth and foam with those hollow black eyes. Needless to say I was taken unawares and may have screamed like a girl as I tried to take a photo which ended up just been a load of bubbles as I fell backwards into the water.

At this stage, everyone else who wanted to get in the cage jumped right in and for the next hour or so we were inundated with great shark viewing; loads of attacking of the bait and one time the shark was trying to rip it off the rope and pulled so tight that it was under the cage and trapping the lid down so no one could actually get out if they even wanted to.

Another episode was when the shark literally wouldn't let go and was on it back wrestling with the tuna bait and halfway out the water at one stage with it's tail fin smashing against the cage. Each time that happened, coupled with the swell, the whole cage was almost underwater at times.

Show that tuna head who's boss

Looking for something a little bigger perhaps?
Thrashing about

Not interested in little fish

Seeing it in the flesh was one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. Although I tried to take as many photos and videos as possible, you just can't imagine the power and ferocity of these sharks until they're right their in your grill.  If you've ever considered it, you have to do it.

This shark, swallow you whole.
After some time it started getting a bit nippy in the water. Even with 5mm wetsuits on, 15 degree water soon becomes a tad unbearable. However, even with teeth chattering I didn't want to move and by the time we had to head back to shore, a couple more Great Whites had come to join the fun and were circling the boat.

Back on land I felt a little more steady and after a platter of meat and fish I soon felt right as rain and ready for the drive back to Cape Town where my next flight was from.

I wish I had more time here in South Africa but unfortunately after a whirlwind tour of the major places I wanted to visit it was time to move on. Slight deviation from my inital plan (which will now need modifying) as now heading back home for a couple months for some R&R, yes I know, all this travelling is very taxing. However, just to keep me occupied I will definately be going away on some city breaks to break up  the monotony of the daily grind.

Next stop, Yorkshire, Yorkshire, Yorkshire.

Ukatulu Lion Reserve

Ukatulu Lion Reserve

A couple hours away from Johannesburg is the Ukatulu Lion Reserve which specialises in breeding white lions among other members of the cat family. Luckily for me Louis knew the owner so I was privy to a late night show with the cubs which were only a matter of weeks old upon our arrival, something most people won't get the chance to do.

There were eleven of them in total, three a little older than the others, and all totally adorable. All they wanted to do was cuddle up and get warm as they were ready to bed down for the night, much the same as any other time of day for these furry creatures. However, you still have to be careful, even at this age their teeth are sharp.

As is always the case when the weather is good and the stars are out it's time for a braai (bbq), and in South Africa I was really spoiled for choice, especially compared to the meat on offer in India. This time beef steak kebab skewers, I mean proper steak, wors (sausage) and snacks were the order of the day. So good, something to get used to I think.

Surrounded by cubs

Cosying up for the night

Braai time

In the morning there were two activities organised: a walk with the lions and a tour of the actual sanctuary to see all the animals and to hear what it is that happens in the reserve.

First off was the lion walk which is exactly as it sounds; a walk with lions. This involves a trainer and another game reserve employee who know and understand the lions and who lead the group. Only two lions are chosen between the ages of one and two, in this case Samson and Poppy. Any more and it could be a little dangerous.

Our group was seven strong so we didn't look too vulnerable to the lions and by staying as a group the lions are meant to think they are part of a pack. Just don't straggle behind taking photos or bend down to tie your shoelace or you'll suddenly look like an attractive snack for them.

The walk basically consisted of following a path through a separate part of the reserve where the lions are free to roam around and play. They were kept under control by the trainer and bribed a little with some frozen chicks. Whatever keeps them off my scent is okay by me.

The walk includes three stops where the chicks are put into trees to try and encourage the lions to jump up and put on a bit of a show for the cameras, meanwhile you try to quickly get your picture taken without getting to close.

However, it is imperative not to try and communicate with them in any way during the tour because if they think you are socialising with them, they will try and socialise back. Not advisable.

Path on the lion walk

Samson, or maybe Poppy

Again, not sure which one but rather close

Snack time

Careful now

Wait for it

After the lion walk it was time for the general tour. As well as a white lion breeding program, people have the opportunity to see cheetah, leopards, tigers and more lions. All of them are kept in massive enclosures and it's obvious the animals are well looked after and cared for. Hopefully more places like this will start to pop up to help the cat family.

At the end of the tour, when all the big cats have been viewed you get the chance to play with the bigger cubs, the six-month-old ones. They actually live in an enclosure where the huts for the employees are, so when you exit your hut, you are literally greeted by lions. You have to show these little ones who's boss or you'd be in a bit of bother.

However, they were fun to play with and as they're always sleepy, just wanted to cuddle up in the shade half the time. Just watch out for your fingers when you're tickling them under the chin.

Volunteers huts with the youngsters


Slightly bigger than your average tabby
Only here for the one night but had a wonderful time with the lions, couldn't believe how up close and personal you get to the them, especially the one to two year olds on the lion walk. Another place I would love to come back to, if only to play with the young cubs again.

Next stop, and this one is right at the top of my list; cage diving with great white sharks.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Kruger National Park, South Africa


Kruger National Park

Having been somewhat let down by the sights of India second time round, I was more than a little excited about the prospect of seeing the Big 5 and cage diving with great white sharks in South Africa; two things right at the top of my travelling to do list.

Whilst in Thailand I was fortunate enough to meet a South African, Louis, who invited me to stay with him and his family when I came to the country and that he would show me round and ensure I would get the most out of my time. True to his word, he picked me up from the airport in Johannesburg and basically took care of me and was the best possible host until it was time for me to leave from Cape Town.

Louuis and Suzette, my awesome hosts

Now, with a limited time period to fit in what I wanted to do, it was on the road straight away for the 400km or so drive to Kruger National Park; one of the largest parks in Africa and one of the best known in the world.

The aim here: drive around and take in the awesome beauty of the place whilst spotting as many animals as possible. Luckily for me, I was fortunate to see not only most animals in the park in just two days, but also great views of the Big 5 themelves: rhino, elephant, buffalo, leopard and, of course, lion.

The Big Boys





Look closely...Leopard
During the first day, we spotted pretty much everything except the elusive leopard which was a great sighting on the second day. When you approach a traffic jam in the Kruger, it pretty much means only one thing; a predator. With a little patience we were able to nip into a decent viewing spot and catch a glimpse of the leopard relaxing in the shade from the sun.

Rhino, buffalo and elephant were all pretty much seen by midday on day one but it was only as dusk was threatening to cut our day off that we saw a lion slowly padding up the road and move into the grass as the car approached. Still, great viewing and amazing to see in real life, as in, not in a zoo.

As well as all the game on view, the area has stunning scenery and the park is so vast the terrain is forever changing. One minute you could be on the tarmac road with bare trees lining both sides, then you are following the Crocodile river with all the lush banks and the animals that inhabit it, then it's just savannah with elephants poking about in trees and before you know it you're driving through a dry river bed with a giraffe on one side and kudu on the other. Just stunning scenery.

Sunset in the Kruger

What a beautiful dsy

Dirt road through the park

Driving through a dry river bed

No one is thirsty
As mentioned before, there are loads of other species in the park, it's not just the Big 5 that you come to see. Below are a few close ups of the other stars of the park.


Blue balls


What are you looking at?
Two days in the Kruger isn't enough, we barely covered 5% of the park. Two weeks would be an ideal period of time to really relax and take in the beauty on offer. However, with great company and lots of viewing luck I was able to make the most of it and had a fantastic time.

I will definately be back again sometime in the future, as I have said with many places. However, South Africa may well have gotten a queue jump pass ahead of some of the other countries I plan on returning to, especially if the shark diving is as good as this.

Next stop, Ukatulu Lodge and Lion Centre.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Taj Mahal, Agra

Getting used to train rides again and from Khajuraho it was only an eight hour trip, nothing compared to 22 hours like the last one or some of the legs I did in Russia. Arriving late in the evening, nipped up to the guesthouse's restaurant to grab a bite to eat and see the Taj Mahal in the last light of the day. At first glance it seemed a little small compared to what I had in mind, perhaps I was thinking it would be on the same scale as all the sights in Beijing for some reason.

Now there are other sights in Agra ranging from Agra Fort, Akbar's tomb, Mehtab Bagh; botanical gardens with a view of the Taj and the small town of Fatehpur Sikri some 40 kms away, not too mention all the other smaller temples the city has to offer. However, there's really only one attraction you come here for when you're pressed for time, especially as the city itself boasts little and less to hold a visitor's attention once the sights have been exhausted.

According to the guidebook, the Taj Mahal is the world's most beauitful building and especially picturesque at sunrise; a bold shout and one that had to be investigated. Getting up well before the crack of dawn and making it over to the west gate in plenty of time, it became apparent that the guards and other employees were never going to be ready in time to have the giant wooden gates open in time for a sunrise shot, let alone the 6am opening time they insisted upon. By the time the gates were finally opened to the public, it was bright with a bare minimum of pink in the sky, that sunrise shot lost forever. You're better than that lads, get it together.

Once through security it was basically a case of running like a child intent on the back seat of a rollercoaster in order to get some pictures of the Taj without having other people in it. My first burst of pace in this fiscal quarter brought me to the gate ahead of the Indians who had sneaked in without having to be security checked. Success.

After about 30 minutes of taking photos and trying to get that perfect shot, the place was overrun with tourists coming in and it was time to put the camera down for a second and actually take stock of the reason I had come in the first place.

With its perfect symmetry, starting with the dome in the middle to the four minarets at each corner of the marble plinth which raises the Taj to its elevated position, the Taj Mahal dominated the skyline, with nothing in the background to suggest the position of where you were, just blue skies. Pools with fountains making up their spine flanked by well tended gardens and trimmed trees and bushes lead up to the shining white marble structure, with many spots along the way where anyone can stop to appreciate the workmanship that went into it from vantage points and benches.

As you get closer, you have to climb some stairs and either remove your shoes or put pre-dispensed covers on your feet, your choice. Once at the Taj's level you can go inside to inspect the false tombs, the real ones are below and off limits to the public, walk around the perimeter and check out views of the Yamuna river, Agra Fort some kilometres further up the river, not to mention, check out the Taj itself from all angles.

However, as beautiful as it was, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed by it all. From what everyone has ever said and written about the Taj, I was expecting to be blown away and experience similar feelings to those experienced in Beijing where everywhere I went exceeded expectations and then some. It just felt like something was missing here.

The design of the exterior is exquisite, no question, with passges from the Qur'an written in calligraphy upon the facade, the white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones and carvings so intricate I can't begin to imagine how long they took. However, I just couldn't feel a connection to any of it, I guess I'm just heartless when it comes to Mughal architecture. 

Once inside the mausoleum and within looking distance of the sarcophagi, I got my torch out to check out the interior designs but was instantly ordered to turn my lights off by some official lurking in the shadows who continued to watch like a hawk until I put it back in my bag, rendering many patterns within useless as I couldn't make them out in the darkness.

Minor gripes aside, the symmetry of the place is astounding. The Taj's aficionado and then ruler of the Mughal empire, Shah Jahan, went to such extremes to maintain this, that an exact replica of Masjid mosque on the west of the complex was erected on the east side. It served no purpose from what I could see, just there to continue the extravagant visual aesthetics of the Taj complex.

The mosque itself is actually still in use, rendering visits to the Taj on a Friday a waste of your time as you will not be granted access unless you are coming for prayers, something I might have had difficulty trying to blag I feel. Any other day is fair game though.

Although I was disappointed to have missed the sunrise, getting there before the masses is a good idea unless you want thousands of people in your photos or touts offering you everything Taj related from postcards to snow domes.

Having arrived so early, I was amazed to find that I was done by 9am, something I hadn't quite envisaged as I thought it would take much longer to walk the Taj itself and see what the grounds had to offer, mostly they just offered various angles from which to observe the Taj as shown below.

Taj Mahal in the morning for sunrise
First pic of the day
Taj close up
Grand Entrance Building to the Taj Mahal complex
Mosque...or is it?
Calligraphy on the Taj's exterior
Shot from the southeast
Shot from the southwest
As mentioned before, it is beautiful. However, as for being the most beautiful building in the world,  I'm going to have to disagee I'm afraid, not that I have any other suggestions at this time. Apart from it's stunning symmetry and the tombs, there really isn't much to see once you have inspected the marble carvings and taken more photos than you thought possible of the same thing.

Of course, this being my second trip to India, I couldn't leave without seeing the Taj again, but upon reflection, I was left so underwhelmed that perhaps believing into the built up hype of certain places should be avoided. Something to think about for my future travels perhaps.

One thing for certain though, there's no way cage diving with Great Whites and going on safari in Kruger Park to spot the 'Big 5' will be a let down, so I will bid farewell to India and get ready for the excitement that awaits in South Africa.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012


Getting here was another one of those near day long missions but thankfully this time it was on a train and not a rickety old bus. Sleeper trains here are great, once you get comfortable and settled into a book, the time can pass pretty quickly, you just have to hope that the 'chai wallah' is on board so you don't get too parched.

Snacks are a good shout as the ones offered at stations are pretty dodgy looking most of the time and considering I'm still not trusting some of the food around here due to my earlier Delhi belly, loads of water and packaged snacks do just the job. 

Upon arrival late in the night at Khajuraho, there was a throng of touts. The town with the smallest population on my itinerary, but greeted by some thirty strong men all shouting that their rickshaw was the best. I may as well have crowd surfed into the one that we eventually chose.

The main draw of this small town is to visit the Western temple complex and if you have time, the Eastern and Jain temples too. These temples, especially the Western ones are some 1000 years old, well preserved with some intricate carvings depicting images of people in erotic poses and sexual positions. Most of the carvings are of everyday life though, with the naughtier ones quite some distance from the temple deity.

The Western complex boasts some well preserved temples, with only one currently under renovation and missing most of its original work. One can only assume that given the Karma Sutra nature some of these temples suggest, had the complex not been hidden by the growth of the jungle around it, it would have been destroyed for sure. Thankfully it was rediscovered by the British some 150 years ago and was saved from destruction, and has since become a World Heritage site that is well maintained and looked after.

The designs of the temples are similar, with steps leading up to the higher tier, where the temple itself lies housing a shrine. Most of the carvings are mundane but it's fun to look for the numerous tantric poses and other carvings including horses and elephants, orgies, couples and even the odd bit of beastiality. Yes there is a design of a man and a horse, or is it an elephant, but I couldn't find it.

Western Complex

Lakshmana Temple from a distance

Lakshmana up close

Vishnu's ride, maybe Shiva's I'm not sure

Erotic carving

Lots of erotic carvings

Perhaps the most famous one

Can't help themselves

Jain and Eastern Temples

Adinath temple


Similar reliefs to the Western temples

A whole wall of a temple covered in carvings

Another famous one

They're everywhere

Phew, after all that I need a break I think. Next stop, Agra for India's most famous attraction, the Taj Mahal.