A Travellerspoint blog

South Africa

Sharktastic

Why diving with sharks is fantastic and why we should do more to protect them

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Shark in the open

Shark in the open

As we swam closer to the cave, one of the seven or eight Ragged Tooth Sharks in there decided the attention was too much. It came straight at us, peered off to the left and disappeared. Probably looking for another cave where curious divers wouldn’t disturb its rest. The rest of the sharks continued chilling, with a few of the bigger, braver ones closest to the cave opening. About two metres from us. Those were not the first sharks of the dive. Earlier, another cave had revealed two enormous sharks, reaching 3 metres in length. In between the caves, I and our lead divemaster had basically bumped into one about the same size turning a corner of coral rock.

Let me get this out of the way early. Sharks are not vicious monsters whose favourite hobby is to slay humans. Regardless of what pop culture has taught us, through masterpieces like Jaws and abominations like the Sharknado franchise, sharks aren’t protagonists. If anything, we are (I’ll get back to that). Rather, sharks are marvellous, intelligent and timid animals. Yes, timid. Most sharks, when they encounter boats, divers or the like, prefer to swim in the opposite direction. Just don’t splash around in the surface, pretending to be a seal.

Ready for sharks

Ready for sharks

Sharks do unfortunately sometimes injure or kill humans. In the last decade, six people have been killed worldwide by sharks annually on average. That’s six people a year across the globe. To put this in perspective, that’s less than lightning (1,000 deaths/year); drowning while bathing (20 deaths/year); while taking selfies (350 deaths/year); and being left-handed (2,500 deaths/year from using products made for right-handed people). In the United States alone, two people are crushed to death by ATMs annually. I would argue you should be as scared of drawing out money as of sharks.

58 % of the people killed by sharks are surfers because sharks tend to mistake them for seals. Once the shark realises its mistake, it will just about always spit out the poor surfer. The tragedy is that these deaths and injuries can be avoided. Durban has cut shark incidents to near-zero by installing shark nets on the city’s beaches. Shark-related injuries in South Africa now happens where there are no nets.

Shark Cave

Shark Cave

My dives off South Africa’s east coast aren’t my first shark encounters. I’ve dived with sharks in the Red Sea and the Caribbean as well. Always without incident. The depressing fact is that diving in shark “infested” waters bring me close enough to see the injuries we have done to sharks. Scars, cuts and disfigurements are clear signs of sharks being caught in nets and as by-catch of fishing vessels looking for a smaller catch. Often though, it’s much worse. Illegal finning – the act of removing sharks’ fins for human consumption – is a billion-dollar industry. An estimated 73-100 million sharks a finned, mutilated that is, annually. Sharks exhibit slow growth rates and low reproductive rates, and can not keep up with the pace of such an industry.

Less severe, but worth considering for the travellers out there, are the legal industries. South Africa is a mecca for cage diving. It’s a multi-million-dollar industry. While most outfits brand themselves as conservationists broadening knowledge about sharks, looking into it these outfits, too many have little to show for their claims. Sure, most outings will include a briefing, information of sharks’ threatened status, and the horrors of finning. But baiting sharks with fish chum, possibly smearing the cage in it, I would argue, doesn’t really work. Showing people in a cage, hunting and angry-looking sharks is not my idea of doing anything good for the images of sharks.

Baby shark

Baby shark

Then there’s the whole question of the baiting of sharks change their natural behaviour. Critics argue that baiting make sharks more likely to associate humans with food and distort their natural migration patterns. The scientific evidence seems to be inconclusive. Not surprisingly, the most vocal supporters of baiting are from the cage dive industry – just like the most vocal arguments for the practise increasing threats to humans often comes from surfers. Personally, I have the option of diving with sharks without needing a cage or bait. It will probably mean that I will never see a great white and only if I’m insanely lucky will I see a tiger shark. But I’ve seen plenty of other sharks, so ditching the cage dives and an industry I neither like nor trust is an easy choice. If you, on the other hand, don’t dive and dream of seeing sharks, all I ask is that you vigorously research the different outfits before you book your dive.

Individually, these are difficult problems to deal with other than the obvious. Don’t eat shark fin and consider whether to do that cage dive. That said, most of you are probably entirely on par with this. But awareness is the first step in the right direction, and I hope anyone reading this has, at least, become a little more enlightened. By all means, go back to watching those scary shark movies now – just spare a thought to Bruce, the friendly great white from Finding Nemo, once in a while.

Posted by askgudmundsen 05:26 Archived in South Africa Tagged diving travel overland sharks motorbike shark dangerous south_africa southern_africa deaths baiting cage_dive finning Comments (0)

The Lonely Roads

A hermit on wheels’ confessions

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Lonely Roads

Lonely Roads

I’m simultaneously trying to avoid two cows that have stepped onto the road and wave to some very excited children, who insist I should give them more of my attention than the cows. For some obscure reason, this is the moment my brain decides to come up with the perfect comeback to a discussion I lost at a meeting six years back. Welcome to the lonely life of riding a motorcycle through Africa alone.

Those damn cows

Those damn cows

Driving a motorcycle across half a continent is invertible a solitudinous undertaking. Hour after hour, often day after day. Alone on the bike. Without a radio, let alone human company. While it can be tedious, it’s also something I’ve come to quite appreciate. It’s undoubtedly not for everybody, but before I move to a cave somewhere to become a troglodyte (i.e. hermit), I might share a few of those dull hours on the road.

Naturally, a lot of the time is spent on the actual driving. While I’m pretty comfortable on the bike after having driven it for more than a year, there are still a ton of things to keep concentrating on. Cattle crossing the road, near-invisible speed bumps, children who need a wave or thumbs up. Then there are the outright fun parts, especially when the road’s winding down mountains and hills. On these, I can keep up speed and slalom my way downhill as if I was a racer – it’s about the only time the glorified scooter drivers fast. Not much time for daydreaming if I want to stay on the road.

Mountain road

Mountain road

Elsewhere, on the long straight roads, there’s plenty of time for daydreaming and enjoying the view. The beauty of being on a motorcycle is the perceived vicinity to the nature around you. Not protected by a car’s chassis or windshield, the full force of the wind is a stout reminder. So is the sun’s baking rays warming up the leather jacket. More importantly, there are no blind angles. On the bike, I have an almost 360-degree view of my surroundings – depending on how much I twist around.

I’ve always enjoyed driving, regardless of which of the two types of road mentioned above. But flying through the developing landscapes on a motorcycle, sitting in the elements is second to none. I’m happy spending a lot of my day merely driving, with a smile on my face. It’s a little like sitting on a dark and stormy evening, looking into a fire. It’s mesmerising. Nothing else is needed.

Younger me

Younger me

The many hours alone are also a perfect time for self-reflection and, frankly, self-improvement. Something I’ve always insisted should be part of any form of travel. Different thoughts or episodes from the past tend to pop up if there’s nothing else to occupy my mind. Whether it’s finder the perfect answers to those “I should have said” episodes from years’ back or becoming better at accepting dumb things I’ve done in the past that comes back to haunt me from time to time. I don’t per se need to be on a motorcycle to do this, but it does provide me with ample opportunities to deal with the ghost of the past. To phrase it in an overdramatic way.

Plenty of impressions

Plenty of impressions

Other than the driving and the self-reflection, I obviously use much time thinking about what to write home about. Small quirky impressions from the road. I keep coming up with all these fantastic, witty and clever paragraphs or new ideas for this blog. Alas, I can’t write them down, and I simply don’t have the time to stop constantly, get out pen and paper, and write it down every time I come up with something new. So inevitably, once I’ve arrived at my destination and open my laptop, I’ve long forgotten all the Shakespearesque brilliance I’ve come up with during the day’s drive…

Lastly, it should not be understated how similar singing while riding a motorbike is to singing in the shower. It’s pretty must a must. Though practising one’s singing while riding do have the added bonus, for talentless people such as myself, that the helmet will muffle all the terrible tunes I release upon an innocent World that, frankly, do not deserve me adding to the ongoing horrors.

Posted by askgudmundsen 00:59 Archived in South Africa Tagged reflections travel overland lonely tanzania malawi zimbabwe motorbike south_africa southern_africa loneliness Comments (0)

The Michelin Guide of Travelling

Travel inspiration can come from anywhere – some of mine come from the UN

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Mask dancing

Mask dancing

Whether you mean to or not, travelling is a learning experience. About foreign lands and cultures, and about oneself. Even the laziest of package tour tourists, regardless of how much of their time they spent at the pool or beach, will have some new experiences. If for nothing else, because their tour company will inevitably have arranged some kind of cultural night with local food and some sort of cultural entertainment. Probably a local dance show. A big part of my love for travelling is my enjoyment of learning about and getting to know the world.

Mapungubwe

Mapungubwe

Earlier on this trip, I almost took a 2,000 km detour to visit the Island of Mozambique, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Had I had a week or ten days more to complete this trip, I would probably have done it. Instead, a couple of days ago, I settled on a mere 140 km detour to visit the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape in the far north of South Africa another World Heritage Site. I somewhat happily paid 15 US$ to enter a national park I wasn’t allowed to drive around in on my motorcycle, only to spend another 5 US$ to visit a museum with a viewpoint. Just because this place is on some fancy list?

Mozambique

Mozambique

Most seasoned travellers have an idea about how many countries they have visited. Many keep count vigorously. And just about everybody who’ve visited more than 50 countries like to brag about it. However, the utmost travel-nerds, people such as myself, counts more than countries. One friend of mine needs to visit one more Federal State in Germany before he has visited them all. I, and quite a few other travellers, count UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I use it as my personal Michelin Guide.

To be clear, the real Michelin Guide is essentially an effort by a tire manufacturer, to go out of their way to visit restaurants. Go figure, a company selling tires want people to drive longer and use up their tires quicker. The definition of Michelin Stars awarded to a restaurant is, for two stars, “excellent cooking, worth a detour,” while three Stars are for “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” UNESCO doesn’t offer starts to their sites, though.

Cave Paintings

Cave Paintings

What United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation’s World Heritage Committee does do, is to pick-out already-classified landmarks for their unique geographically or historically significance. Places that in some way or another constitutes a remarkable accomplishment of humanity serve as evidence of our intellectual history or are worth conservation for posterity. Thus the sites vary hugely. All those you would expect are there: The Pyramids, Acropolis, Great Barrier Reef, Galapagos, even the Statue of Liberty. Then there are the obscure ones: A Scottish bridge, Dutch pumping stations, unknown cave paintings in the middle nowhere and a seemingly random house in Buenos Aires.

Vic Fall's on the List

Vic Fall's on the List

Nobody needs a random UN-list to travel out of their way to visit the Pyramids or Great Barrier Reef. Like most people, I’d happily take a long detour to visit the Galapagos Islands, cost and time allowing it of course. But why would some of us, weird people, go out of our way to see a bridge in Scotland? I even dragged my friends along. UNESCO Sites, especially the obscure ones, is a chance for me to learn something new about the world that I would not have discovered otherwise. How the Dutch reclaimed prodigious sways of their country from the sea with the pumping stations.

Tiny rhino

Tiny rhino

The random plains and cliffs of Mapungubwe turned out to have been the home of what is largely thought to be Southern Africa’s first organised polity – that is, its first proper kingdom – trading gold and ivory as far afield as China. It’s one of the first evidence on the continent of hunter-gathers and farmers living side-by-side. They also produced adorable tiny rhinoceroses of gold. The World Heritage Sites, particularly the lesser-known, are fantastic opportunities for anyone travelling to emerge themselves in what travelling is inevitably about. Learning about those bits and pieces of our world and history that we never knew we didn’t know.

And let’s not forget that it gives me a niche bragging opportunity towards my fellow travellers. By Christmas, I’ll have mapped 108 countries and 210 UNESCO sites. Then again, the World Heritage Committee adds around 20 new sites every year, and with the current number standing a 1,121, I won’t run out anytime soon.

Posted by askgudmundsen 09:38 Archived in South Africa Tagged culture history travel overland unesco motorbike world_heritage south_africa southern_africa learn list learning lists reasons Comments (0)

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