Thursday, 12 April: As I mentioned in my Sodwana Bay post, we did two pleasure dives in the morning before taking showers and piling in the van south.
All but three students and one staff opted for the optional bush and boat safari, so we were placed in a hostel for the night to make the early start as easy as possible. We got to St. Lucia at about 4:30PM and relaxed for the evening.
Friday, 13 April: We left the hostel at 4:30AM for our safari at Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park about half an hour from St. Lucia. It started so early because the animals are most active at dusk and dawn, a procedure I’m familiar with thanks to all the mornings I had with Arizona Game and Fish over summer. Just outside the gates of the park, we saw a small pack of African wild dogs. They escape the park by digging under the fence. They were right at the roadside and even our guide said it was a very special sighting, and I take it he’s seen a lot of amazing things.
Once in the park, our first close sighting was a magnificent giraffe who stood tall above the brush against a painted background of the wilderness.
Then, we saw some impalas, but we soon realized that they’re the McDonald’s of the reserve: there’s one (usually a dozen or more) around every corner.
We also had a very good rhino day (according to our guide): we saw about ten!
We also saw wildebeest, lions (who were laying in the shade pretty much out of sight), baboons scurrying in the street, cape buffalo, tortoises and terrapins and plenty of endemic birds.
But the highlight of the trip was our close encounter with an elephant.
We spotted him from across the river and once he started to move, we met up with him near the road. He was bathing himself in dirt trying to keep cool and the guide said he was in musth, or especially aggressive characterized by his temporary increase in reproductive hormones. Basically, he was horny.
He walked out from the bush into the street right in front of us. He slowly walked towards us, but our guide made sure we kept our distance. After idling in the road for a while, he completed his crossing and we moved on. As we started to drive off, he charged the vehicle and we had to move even quicker. It was quite scary but so thrilling. Looking back, we saw him knock over a tree with his mighty one tusk and wander off into the bush again.
We saw a few more elephants on the trip: one from about 20 meters away and a small group in the valley. The elephants were certainly the highlight of the safari! Unfortunately, my pictures are quite shit, but I look forward to getting pictures from others on the safari and sharing them around! Mine don’t do these beautiful creatures justice.
After a quick lunch, we headed on a river cruise for spotting hippos and crocodile. It wasn’t “wow” as obviously we only saw a fraction of the critters from a distance as they were mostly submerged in the water. The highlight of the cruise was actually the African fish eagles and water deer.
Once the river cruise was over, we headed another few hours south to Umkomaas where we promptly went to bed to prepare for another early day of diving.
Saturday, 14 April: We left the hotel around 4:30AM to get a bus to Protea Banks at Shelly Beach about an hour away for two dives: one baited, one reef. After manually pushing the boat into the water from shore (very hard with half a dozen skinny to average women, one average man and… Bill) (just kidding, please don’t take off marks if you’re reading this, Bill).
The baited dive is just as it sounds: you put bait in the water to attract sharks. I was guzzling air on this first dive because I was a little scared. Can you blame me? In the end, only two oceanic blacktip sharks hung around for the last 2/3 of the dive. Relatively uneventful. I think the lack of visibility and not seeing the bottom scared me more than the presence of the sharks.
After that, we did a reef dive, where notable sights included potato bass and several round ribbontail rays.
All the Master’s students on this trip from left to right: supervisor Bill, myself, Jo, Emma, Torie (my fellow American), Samirah and Ph.D. student George in the back!
Also, I was the first person from Arizona to dive with this company. Represent!
As usual, after the dives, we worked on data and our presentations.
Monday, 15 April: Today, we dove from Ukomaas, where we are based, at Aliwal Shoal. The launch site was steps away from the hotel and we enjoyed two dives that morning.
First up was a reef dive, where we saw a honeycomb ray and a flying fish from the boat.
The second dive was a baited dive again, but this time we got up to twenty sharks, all oceanic black tips. It was incredible! However, my ears were having problems during the last part of the dive.
Tuesday, 16 April: After going through the rigmarole of waking up early, kitting up and going to the dive site, my ear got blocked 15 minutes into the first dive. It was kind of a bummer sitting out the second dive, but after the divers surfaced, we encountered dolphins from the boat, at which most everyone jumped overboard to get a glimpse. It wasn’t a close encounter, but seeing dolphins is always amazing. Not to mention it was a pod of about 35, larger than what I saw in Egypt!
That evening, we gave our project presentations. I feel our groups, and all the groups for that matter, did well and I feel confident in my work. We celebrated over a drink (or 6) and had a night to cut loose before we leave for Cape Town at 10AM tomorrow for the final stretch of our trip for more dives and report writing.