Go scuba diving…
It was winter in the Cape and we were yearning for warm water, sunshine and adventure – the three ingredients of our happiest family holidays. So we flew to Durban, hired a vehicle and drove up to South Africa’s tropical northeastern corner. Initially our plan was to take in the game reserves and beaches but in the back of my mind I had a different idea – the signs to Sodwana reminded me that we were near the diving centre of South Africa, and it would be a great opportunity to get Liam (12) and Dane (10) qualified and to have an unforgettable adventure. Sodwana Bay is within Isimangaliso Wetland Park – South Africa’s first World Heritage Site that includes a rich patch- work of lakes, grasslands, coastal forests and marine reserves that extend all the way from Kosi Bay on the border of Mozambique to St Lucia and the Eastern Shores. This area includes the country’s most southerly and best protected coral reefs, and most new divers in SA blow their first bubbles at Two Mile Reef – progressing to the more pristine Five Mile, Seven, Eight and Nine Mile reefs. The largest and most established diving school in Sodwana Bay is Coral Divers, which is a PADI five-star Instructor Development Centre and Gold Palm resort. It’s inside the coastal reserve and is just two kilometres from the beach. From the moment we arrived and I saw the sign ‘We didn’t know we were making memories – we just knew we were having fun’, I knew we had come to the right place for our father-and-son experience. Coral Divers is set deep in a forest populated with chattering vervet monkeys and shy red duiker. It has a super-chilled island vibe, with people milling around, cooking, studying fish charts, sipping beers and listening to music. The safari dome tents, part of our package deal, are cheek-to-cheek with the communal showers, but we upgraded to a cabin with a balcony and an en-suite shower. We could also have set up our own tent in the KZN Parks campsite, which is a short walk away. There are rows of individual fridges, pots, pans and plates to feed a small army, as well as a restaurant offering burgers and chips, milkshakes and other meals for the bevy of hungry divers. Being a dop en tjop kind of guy, I loved the communal braai fires, and rubbed shoulders and stories with a kindhearted dive instructor called Jan (he’d shown hundreds of underprivileged kids the beauty of the reefs), an economics professor from Bloemfontein and other young families bound by their love of being underwater. At dive planning on the first evening, we handed the lives of our young boys into the care of a fresh-faced instructor
named Johnny Forbes. He was just 19 and our boys liked him immediately. ‘You will never forget where you took your first breath under water,’ he told the group. The other six students included mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. It was heart-warming to see how they would all help one another in the challenging days that followed and the bonds that would be forged. The success of this course for our boys was the relationship they developed with the fun-loving, young instructors, who joked and teased but always stressed the seriousness of safety and discipline. Johnny insisted that every time the boys didn’t clean their O-rings, they had to buy him a milkshake. PADI has a very organised and interesting curriculum which includes videos, lectures, pool sessions and openwater dives. The learning is reinforced with multiple-choice questions and students need 75 per cent and above to pass. There is a lot to cover and classes sometimes run until late. ‘All the important stuff that I learnt, except signs, was in the pool,’ reflected Liam as he emerged late one afternoon from the water. ‘The lectures were necessary but not as important as the confined water dives. We learnt how to gear up, how to buddy breathe, about buoyancy, being aerodynamic, what to do in life-threatening situations. Also very important things like staying away from the propeller, even if it’s obvious.’ I have my diving qualifications and figured that the best way to help the dive masters teach the boys was to stay right out of it and provide moral support where needed. On the third day, they set off to Two Mile Reef for their first open-water dive, and I waited anxiously on the shore to hear how they had gotten on. An hour later they were back with smiles as wide and bright as the beach. ‘It felt like a lifetime experience,’ said Dane. ‘I was a bit worried about being sick but it was fine. It’s amazing how tame fish are when you are underwater. They brushed against us. They really did not care about us.’ ‘It felt different and amazing,’ said Liam. ‘I’ve always loved fishing but seeing them underwater doing their own thing is better than seeing them on the rocks.’ We celebrated with Johnny and the rest of the group at the nearby Mseni Lodge with prego rolls and chocolate brownies. It is a spot in Sodwana with a view of the sea, and a short walk leads to a private and secure beach which was one of the most spectacular I have seen anywhere. Although I have done hundreds of dives myself, I was celebrating the resilience that the boys had shown and their new-found passion for the underwater world that I love. I watched them grow in confidence with this new skill and was so proud to be able to go on my first dive with them and share their excitement. Now I am planning trips to the Maldives, the wrecks of the Red Sea and other exciting places. And being a new ‘diving family’, we hope to be back at Coral Divers too, and Sodwana tjop-tjop. After all, as Johnny said, you really never forget where you took your first breath underwater.
‘I’ve always loved fishing, but seeing them underwater doing their own thing is better than seeing them on the rocks’
Coral Divers’ cabins and facilities are tucked into the forest at Sodwana Bay Nature Reserve.
ABOVE Sodwana’s Jessop Point shelters the bay for easy access to the reefs by boat. RIGHT Student divers at a pool session.