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Latitude 14* 12.4N
Longitude 062* 7.5W
1122 hrs
Saturday, May 1st 2010

Cold water silently crept through every rift and tear in the neoprene as I lowered myself in to the 57 F degree water. I could feel the cold quickly encapsulating my body as quiet streams of salt water filled my wet-suit. Sea-gulls hovered in space overhead, floating on the wind and circling our boat, unquestionably attracted by that unmistakable smell of fish guts. The large, rolling swells rocked our vessel and cage back and forth. I’m standing on my toes in the steel cage, tense with anticipation. I lower my head and mask under the surface. The visibility is bad. I can barely make out a small school of fish mulling about less than 10 feet away. I raise my head above water and regain my breath. My body releases a swift shiver in response to the cold water. The deck hand behind us tosses out a yellow rope with a decapitated tuna head affixed to the end. We stand in silence in the cage. I lower my head again. The school of fish is nibbling on the floating fish head. I stand back up wondering if something is going to happen. For almost 10 seconds, nothing does. Suddenly we hear “DOWN LEFT! DOWN LEFT!” Our guide yells. We quickly drop below water. Out of the dark, green haze a 14 feet Great White shark appears, approaching the bait line. We stand transfixed in the steel cage, eyes locked on the apex predator as is effortlessly shoots towards the bait. The crew hand on deck yanks the bait line, luring the shark closer to our cage. Within two feet of our faces, it veers sharply to its left and disappears back into the dark haze of ocean water.

My first face-to-face encounter with a Great White shark couldn’t have gone better. A group of seven students – Lauren, Bo, TJ, Tom, Angela, Srdan and myself – had gotten together on a trip to Gansbaai, roughly two hours from Cape Town, to get in the water with the Carcharodon carcharias. The sensation you get from having a 14 feet, 1000 lb. graceful beast in the form of a Great White rushing at you from out of nowhere, is hard to describe on paper. It was well worth getting up at 0430 hrs in the morning for.

We arrived in Cape Town early in the morning of March 31st, with a spectacular view of Table Mountain as a scenic backdrop for the city itself. The sky was clear, the temperature was notably colder than what we had experienced in Mauritius (thankfully; I don’t like it when it’s too hot out) and a slight breeze was ushering us into the harbor. After immigration officials had cleared the ship, we were off. I went off into Cape Town with my friends Kristina, Nick, Colette and Elle and visited a historical part of town known as Bo-Kaap. While it apparently was historical (it houses a large Muslim population, and its first mosque was established in 1844), it was actually kind of boring; nothing really happened there, and there wasn’t much to look at. The local museum detailing the neighborhood’s history was impossible to find and there was hardly any people in the streets to talk to. We assume it was because people had taken time off because of Easter.

After strolling around in Bo-Kaap for a while, we headed into the more central parts, and particular the streets around Long Street (and yes, there is a Short Street) and the Green Market. As Nick and I were in the company of three girls we naturally went to the  Green Market, where trinkets, souvenirs and handicrafts of all kinds were sold. As the girls browsed around, I restricted myself to acquiring a new leather belt before Nick and myself went to a bar across the street to try out some local beer. At the suggestion of a local man, whose appearance made him look like an unemployed soldier of fortune (who I assume there are plenty of in South Africa), we enjoyed a Carling Black Label each before joining up with the girls again. We all sat down at a cozy street café and had some coffee drinks before moving on.

Where to next?

At 1330 hrs, we met up with the guide that Kristina and Colette had booked a few days in advance. We all hopped in the van and sped off through the city for a guided tour and quick historical primer about the establishments of townships in Cape Town, before reaching the oldest township by the name of Langa. Founded in 1937, Langa was basically (and partially still is) a ghetto area wherein people live and sometimes work. Most inhabitants however, work outside their townships today. Before getting a guided walking tour of Langa, we visited a community center where children and adults alike could spend their time, although it is mostly intended as a place where children can spend their day after school, engaging in activities such as music, painting, theatrical performances, etc.

We entered a semi-large hall in the center, and was immediately greeted by a flock of kids, seven or eight large. As we were ushered by our guide to sit down on a shoddily assembled row of lawn chairs, a boy of 8-9 years age, introduced three musical places they wanted to play for us, before he screamed “ABUGURO!!!”. Then, a perfectly choreographed and composed assault was unleashed on an array of xylophones and traditional African drums, with the kids yelling in chorus various words and chants. I have seldom seen such intensity, vigor and sheer joy in anyone performing music(besides seeing Metallica playing ‘Creeping Death’ in front of 44,000 Norwegians in 2007 – I feel, however, that the comparison might be unfair). After two songs more, we played with the kids, having them teach us how to play the xylophone and the drums. I’m convinced that was entertainment in itself for the locals, as yours truly has no musical talent whatsoever.

Normally, I feel pretty crummy from having to play the role of (comparatively) rich, white tourist getting entertained by local blacks in a staged display of local culture. Not this time; the amount of fun these kids were having while rocking out was astounding. They were having a ball, and quite clearly thought nothing of the fact that there was a large social divide between us. Since they didn’t think anything of it, there was no reason for me to feel bad. If only I possessed the same musical talent.

Following a quick tour of the rest of the community center, we met up with another guide, and friend of our first guide, who walked with us through Langa, historically and literally. As we strode through the trash-strewn streets, we got the history and current situation of the township from a man who lives and works in it. He knew his stuff, and the people, evident by his greeting and shaking hands with locals as we walked. Coming through a small street, we got to enter a house with many bedrooms and a central kitchen. 16 families lived in this house. Sixteen. They shared one kitchen, and the one bedroom we got to see, had three beds. Apparently, three of the families shared this one bedroom, which incidentally was approximately half the size of a Pace University dorm room. I’m keeping that in mind next time I catch myself complaining about my quarters.

I could easily fill 20 pages of scribbling, detailing my five days in South Africa. No one would want to read 20 pages of inordinately detailed descriptions of my undertakings, so I’m forcefully restricting myself to three more stories. Cage-diving with sharks, skydiving, and climbing Table Mountain.

Having been up late the night before, not wanting to waste one minute sleeping when in port, it was hard, hard, to rise at 0430 hrs in the morning. I knew that it would be worth it though. I met up with my group in Tymitz Square on the fifth deck at 0440 hrs, packed and ready to go. Some of the guys were still visibly drunk from the night before. Some of them hadn’t slept more than 15-20 minutes. I’m glad I wasn’t in their shoes that morning. We disembarked and met up with the guy who took us to Gaansbai. For some strange reason, most South African guys exude an image of badass outdoorsmen and former mercenaries. This guy was no exception.

En route to Gaansbai, we made a few stops and picked up other travelers who would join us. After two hours, we were served breakfast at the company’s headquarters while Badass Mercenary Man gave us a detailed walk-through of the day’s plan. We then jumped back in the van and rode ten minutes to the shore. There, we all boarded the boat, the Megalodon II (named after that infamous, prehistoric, giant shark) before it was hoisted into the water. After a speedy transit, we anchored a few hundred yards off a rocky island. These waters are rife with Great Whites due to the amount of seals in the water, and thus the area is aptly named Shark Alley. While the crew lowered the steel cage into the water and roped it to the starboard side of the boat, all the passengers congregated on the top deck where we (I did anyway) enjoyed the smell of the ocean, the cool wind and the sun steadily rising over the mountains in the distance.

When first tossed a small bucket of bloody water and chum into the ocean to attract sharks, and then lassoed out the decapitated tuna head. After a few tries, the first shark showed itself, breaching the surface trying to get at the fish head. A collective gasp of amazement coalesced aboard. The crew called for the first five passengers to change into wet-suits and put on “booties, hoodies and maahsks”. I got into the cage with the second group.

I urge you to re-read my opening paragraph, because that is my best attempt to describe the scene. The eerie underwater silence coupled with the poor visibility gave it all a spooky atmosphere, particularly if you have any fear of sharks. Personally I don’t, but the atmosphere was palpable. Sharks could spring out of the haze at any time. We got lucky this day; we waited less than 10 minutes for the first shark to show up, and the largest one we spotted was approximately 15 feet long. All in all we saw five different sharks, according to Badass Mercenary Man. How he could spot the difference, I do not know, but that man commanded so much respect with such authority that I didn’t bother to question him.

I got to hop in the cage twice. Both times were equally exciting and fascinating, allowing for several sightings of large sharks nearly crashing into our cage, desperately springing for that oh-so-delicious tuna head. One time, a shark managed to outfox the deck hand holding the bait line. The shark deftly outmaneuvered the man by slowly approaching the bait as if it was curious but cautious, but then unexpectedly charging at it, gripping it with its myriad of razor-sharp teeth and chomping on it like there was no tomorrow. It gnawed the head off of the bait line and swam away, presumably content with the meal he had gotten, and with the fact that he had outsmarted those strange people who show up everyday and taunt him with delicious, yet unreachable tuna.

The following day luckily didn’t require a awakening before 0700 hrs. What it did require however, was a giant pair of cojones, at least on my part. Through the same agency that we’d booked our shark diving adventure through, we had arranged to go skydiving. To me, the idea of willingly jumping out of a perfectly functional airplane seems incredibly counterintuitive. My good friend Michael Okhravi postulated once that “the fear is the exact reason you’ve gotta do it”. Sure. The same group as from the day before gathered, plus one new member, Eli, and got off the ship to eat breakfast together. As we ate, Lauren, who put all of this together, got a phone call saying that the cloudy weather was threatening our trip for the day. Fortunately, the overcast weather dissipated quickly, and regardless of the fact that we didn’t get a phone call back telling us if the trip was on or off, we met up at the scheduled pick-up spot. Lo and behold, there was a van and a man waiting to whisk us away to the airstrip.

On our way there, three of the five guys in the car, myself excluded, were chugging Red Bulls. I couldn’t help but muse at the unintentionally hilarious image it created. Adventure-seeking youngsters about to jump out of an airplane, slamming down the energy drink of choice for extreme sport enthusiasts worldwide. It was like a bad advertisement for a 3rd world country energy drink.

When there, we got strapped into our harnesses and divided into groups. The small Cessna aircrafts employed couldn’t hold more than three jumpers plus tandem masters at a time, so there was no way that we all could ascend to the drop zone together. What struck me as we got strapped in, was how little instruction we had received. The basic gist of what we’d been told was this: there’s a small platform on the landing gear. Put your feet on it when we open the door. When we jump, curve your head back, hold your hands on your shoulder straps and curve your legs back. When we tap you on the shoulder, you can let go of your harness and spread your arms out.

Srdan (pronounced Sir John) and Tom went first. They disappeared onto the tarmac with their tandem masters, seeming perfectly calm the entire time. I couldn’t be any worse, I thought to myself. While waiting in the airplane hangar for the next available airplane, we spoke to two british girls who had just gone before us. They assured us it was nothing to be scared of, that it was a phenomenal rush and also to remember to enjoy the view. I took it to heart: I was going to have a blast, no matter how nervous I might be.

Lauren and myself were up next. We walked out with our tandem masters and boarded the aircraft. They informed us that the ascent to the drop zone would take about 20 minutes. Plenty of time to let that nervousness in your gut build up, I thought. What surprised me, though, was that for the entire time going up, I was as close to perfectly calm as I could have been. I was just fine. I was casually talking to my instructor and to Lauren. I was enjoying the stunning view. What had started out as a clouded morning had morphed into a day of clear skies and perfect conditions. We’d been told that this is the best drop zone in the world. I’m inclined to agree. We could see all of the coast line stretching from Cape Town down to Cape Point. We could see all of Table Bay, including Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.

My tandem master asked me to scoot up on his knees so he could strap our harnesses together and double-check every connection point. One point on each shoulder and one on each hip. He tightened the straps tight, which was cool at first, making sure I wouldn’t fall off the moment he deployed the chute. When I noticed the blood flow was cut off to my arms, it wasn’t so comfortable anymore, but there was no way I was going to let that ruin anything. I’d rather lose the sensation in my fingertips than my life.

“Two minutes ‘till drop.” We were up next. “Alright Martin, we’re up first” the man strapped to my back said, in his unmistakable South African accent. “I’m gonna open the door, you’re gonna put you’re feet on the platform out there, hold on to your harness and place your head back on my right shoulder.” Then he opened the door. Rushing air filled the cabin and combined with the sound of the propeller, it was so loud I could hardly hear my own thoughts. I swung my feet out and forced them against the wind as best as I could, placing them on the small platform on the landing gear. The wind was so strong I thought my shoes were going to fall off. Before I could finish my thought, the man on my back grabbed the sides of the open door, yelled “Put your head on my shoulder!” against the wind. He said “Here we go!” and pushed off from the fuselage.

“OOOOOOOHMYYYGOOOOOOOD!” was the first and only sound I managed to produce, as we were approaching terminal velocity. After ten seconds of free-falling, we’d reached it, and we were falling for another 20 seconds. At that altitude, it doesn’t seem at first as if the ground is closing in on you, and it doesn’t really feel like you’re falling. It just feels like you’re in a really, really powerful wind tunnel.The googles I wore were tight against my face, yet still air was rushing in between them and my face so hard I couldn’t see out of my left eye. I was clutching my camera in my right hand as tight as I could so not to drop it (Oh yeah, they let us take our cameras with us). Out of nowhere I felt a yank on my shoulders and everything seemingly stopped moving. The man on my back had deployed the chute and for the first seconds, when my senses were readjusting to normal velocities again, everything seemed to move in slow motion. “Nice view, huh?” I had to concur. The view was spectacular. I could see everything I’d seen from the plane, now without the distracting elements of the fuselage and engine roar.

Everything is abnormally peaceful, when you’re hanging mid-air with the only sound being a faint rush of air as you slowly descend. As the chute was deployed, the abrupt G-forces it created tightened the harness around my arms even more, and at this point both my arms were feeling like they were about to rupture from the tingling. At the point where my arms were practically useless and immovable, my tandem master handed me the controls and told me I could fly the chute. I forced my arms to grip the handles and followed instructions. Pull left to go left and vice versa. Simple enough and man, was it fun. We went in circles over the landing spot, going so steep at times we were practically hanging sideways mid-air.

As we were coming down towards the landing spot, and the ground was approaching rapidly, I was told to pull my knees up to my chest and extend them as soon as my tandem master had hit the ground running. Two men stood at the landing site, aiding in our landing. As soon as we landed in the and, we fell backwards. I needed help to get myself to my feet due to my arms being completely dead at this point. My adrenaline was still rushing. Lauren landed a few minutes after me, when I’d gotten out of the landing zone.

Jumping out of an air plane was easily one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had. Nay, the most exhilarating. I cannot remember a bigger adrenaline rush in my life, and I’d gladly recommend it to anyone looking for a rush. I only jumped from 9,000 feet and I free fell for 30-35 seconds. I’m thinking the next logical progression is to jump from 18,000 feet.

The next morning I got up before the break of dawn, at 0540 hrs and met up with my friends Dave, Peyton and Srdan. We headed out, after a few cups of head-ache remedying coffee, in a taxi to the foot of Table Mountain. Table Mountain is the famous, flat-top mountain behind Cape Town. It’s name should be self-explanatory when I tell you it’s flat on the top. From the bay area, it literally looks like it’s completely even on top.

We hopped in the only cab present this early in the morning, driven by an eccentric character. An Australian man of 71 years old, our cab driver took us to the spot where the Platteklip Gorge Trail started, showing us log-books of his 41 ascents in 41 weeks while driving. He parked at the spot where the started, gave us his card in case we needed a ride later on, and went on his way. Having been told that this 71-year old reached the peak at 3,563 feet in 75 minutes, we expected to pull off the same feat ourselves. We are, after all, prime specimens in our early twenties.

As we were hiking to the top, I was usually leading the pack due to not being hung-over or still drunk from the night of partying from before. Some of the guys had hardly slept more than two hours that night. As we were walking, we kept garnering laughs from locals descending, upon seeing in what terrible shape we were. Sweating, wheezing, panting, and taking breaks from walking every 100 yards. It was a sight to behold.

During the frequent breaks we took, I passed the time by shooting my slingshot that I’d bought the day before, while waiting for my friends to catch up.

After 2 hours and 25 minutes, standing at the peak of 3,563 feet above sea level, we’d gained an entirely new appreciation for the physical condition of a certain 71-year old. We’d also gained a newfound shame of our own physical condition, but that remained unspoken of. Despite our broken pride, the hike up the mountain was worth every iota of physical energy exerted, every bead of sweat and every minute spent. Standing atop this mountain, and being able to see the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other really makes one marvel at nature. There’s a lot to see out there, if only you decide to go look.

If you ever travel to South Africa, I implore you to visit Cape Town, to climb Table Mountain, to visit the townships, to visit Robben Island (unfortunately I didn’t do that), to go skydiving, to go cage-diving with Great White sharks, to go party with the locals and talk to the locals. You won’t regret it.

Next up on our itinerary is Ghana. Stay tuned for more!

Martin

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