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April 03, 2005

Africa Cold

Cape Town, South Africa

Sunday, April 3, 2005:

I spent the day --- a small portion of it anyway --- diving with a company I will, for the purposes of the blog, call "Scuba Duh." It was "Gavin" from Scuba Duh who picked me up from my hotel at 7:15 AM to cart me along on a scenic drive south to the company's offices some 40 minutes away, midway down the Cape Peninsula. The views along the route were spectacular, though I had seen much of this already on my trip to Cape Point two days earlier. Nevertheless, as tall and goofy Gavin was not much of a conversationalist, so deeply engaged in his Robbie Williams CD as he was, I appreciated the views of mountainous ocean coastline and wealthy harbor resort towns. We never picked up any other passengers, as they were all arranging for their own transportation to the dive site.

As for that dive site, Gavin casually mentioned that it would be Hout Bay, on the colder Atlantic side of the Cape. I had been told a day earlier that we would be diving in False Bay on the warmer (yet less than warm) eastern side, where temperatures were a bracing but bearable 14 to 18 degrees Celcius (high 50s to high 60s Farenheit). I had been in these conditions in the Galapagos and in Patagonia. But my understanding was that the Atlantic side was colder, sometimes much colder, and that most divers used dry suits under their wetsuits to brave the chill. Scuba Duh and most other shops do not rent dry suits because they tend to be fragile and you need a very close fit for them to work effectively. I had never trained to use a dry suit in the first place (which is a must because the suit greatly effects your buoyancy), and so I realized that I would be heading into the unknown waters in the standard 7 milimeter wet suit I was accustomed to.

I tried on some equipment at Scuba Duh's offices, where Gavin hitched a yellow rubber boat on a wagon to the back of a large Land Rover. We then set off again for Hout Bay, which we reached about 15 minutes later. It was now some time after 9 AM and we found a group of people with bags full of dive gear waiting for us in a crowded parking lot by the waterfront, where other dive boats were being lowered into the water on their trailors and where numerous cafes and tourist shops were catering to incoming masses of tourists who were there to take short ferry boats out to a nearby island where thousands of fur seals could be seen frolicking about in typical goofy fur seal fashion.

I call Scuba Duh "Scuba Duh" for purposes of the blog because I found them to be affable but generally clueless and uninformative. They never really gave me any overview as to what we would be doing or when we would be doing it and while I suppose they qualify as "competent" so far as their ability to run a diving operation goes, they didn't seem to exercise all that much good judgment or make any effort to go the extra mile beyond just-barely-adequate. The misinformation about dive sites (warmer False Bay versus colder Hout Bay) was irritating enough because I had specifically enquired to be sure I would be diving on the eastern side of the Cape, not the west as I was now abou to do. Also, when I realized we would have a total of 12 divers jammed in on the boat with only one divemaster leading the dive (although he would only lead 7 or 8 of us), I questioned their seriousness. In Utila, the Galapagos and Patagonia, more than 4 or 5 divers to a divemasters just wasn't done. In addition, larger boats than this one took far fewer passengers out. At $95 for two dives, the diving here wasn't cheap, either, so I felt I should have been experiencing conditions less cramped and at least a little more personalized. But that wasn't the case. "Cram 'em in," seemed to be the motto here.

I was told I should go ahead and put my wet suit on right there in the parking lot and did so, managing to lodge a few bits of rock and gravel into my boots and suit as I did so. After they lowered the boat into the water and loaded it up, Gavin and the dive master invited the divers to board, and so we sat squashed against each other and our equipment as we began to motor out into the bay. It was sunny out, but still a bit cool (65 degrees F), with an occassional strong gust of wind. The massive rocky face of Chapman's Peak towered over the bay.

We reached our site, "Vulcan Rock" after about 10 minutes. Gavin gave us a brief overview of the dive. "The water is only 12 degrees!" He said excitedly (that's about 54 degrees F). I think what he was excited about was the fact that as captain of the boat, he wasn't going to be getting into it. The dive master and a majority of the other divers were in drysuits, though a few people were not.

We checked our gear and prepared to enter the water. With so many divers on such a small boat, I was sure we would be instructed to enter in smaller groups, to avoid the prospect of one diver falling on another's head with his tank or other hard equipment (shops in the Galapagos would typical go in 4 or 5 at a time). However, no such precaution was taken and so all 12 of us went in simultaneously.

It was cold. Very cold. People made comments about it, even the people in dry suits. We all did last minute checks before the dive master gave us the sign to descend. As we sank down into the dim green water, I was happy to find myself warming up slightly. At least I was away from the whipping surface winds at the top.

The dive itself, at 60 to 70 feet below, provided views of enormous stalks of kelp up to 15 feet high, possibly taller, as well as red and pink covered walls of coral stretching up nearly to the surface. There weren't many fish other than thousands of schools of little bait fish the length of a thumbnail, but these were interesting enough to watch as they swarmed around the kelp forest. Other marine life consisted mainly of white anemones, red starfish and other inverterbrates.

The problem with the dive was that I felt cold again after 10 minutes and very cold after 20. I had noticed a small tear in one of my gloves before the dive started. When I had asked Gavin whether it would make a difference or not he had smirked and said "let me know." In fact, by 20 minutes in, the area around that hole felt numb. After 25 minutes I was losing the feeling in both of my hands and wrists. I made the appropriate sign to the dive master. Fortunately, because so many of the other divers were starting to run low on air at that point (I had plenty left, not that I wanted to stay to use it), he gave us the signal to come up a minute or two later. It took another 5 minutes to get out of the water. I had a tough time pulling myself over the side of the boat because I couldn't feel my hands at all.

"Cold in there!" muttered people on the boat with a smile. I looked around for a towel to dry my hands, but Scuba Duh didn't carry any. Every other dive operation I had been out with carried towels for dives in much warmer water but I wasn't that surprised by their absence here at this point. I began to take off my freezing gloves and boots and blow on my red and white hands.

"9.5 degrees at the bottom!" said a woman in a dry suit, examining the dive computer on her wrist. I did the math. The water was about 49 degrees Farenheit. We had been down for a total of 31 minutes. I had never been colder in my life and where was I? Africa.

We motored back to the shore. I told Gavin it was a good dive (but for the cold it was) but that I wasn't getting back in again for the second dive, period. He seemed slightly amused, though he seemed slightly amused by everything, so I didn't get too annoyed with him over this. I changed into my clothes in one of the cafes and settled in to read my book over some coffee and breakfast. I felt fine by then and could feel my hands again, but thought another dive would be a fairly stupid idea.

As it turns out, I waited for a very long time. I even went out of the cafe at one point to make sure that the Land Rover was still there and that Gavin hadn't come back and left without me --- something I could easily imagine him doing. After about two hours I worried that something had happened. But then I saw the divers saunter up into the parking lot and found out that all that had happened was that the boat's motor had broken down on the way to the second dive site and the divers had ultimately settled for a crappy dive in a remote, second-hand site for about 15 minutes, no more. So I hadn't missed anything.

After all of the equipment had been loaded up and the boat secured to the back of the car again, I drove with Gavin back to Scuba Duh headquarters. I expected us to mope around for a few minutes before switching back into the van Gavin had picked me up in for the drive back. Instead I found myself ignored as I sat in the front room thumbing through various dive magazines. After 25 minutes I finally grew impatient. I walked up to a clueless Gavin and was just about to ask him exactly how long he planned on hanging around and doing nothing when it dawned on him that I might actually want to know what was going on. I could almost see the lightbulb flicker on over his head. "Oh yeah!" he said. "Steve took the van [whoever the hell Steve was], so just as soon as he gets back --- should only be 15 minutes --- we'll get going."

Steve took another 45 minutes and it was an hour before we left. I rode back to Cape Town with Gavin and a South African girl who had just finished her PADI Open Water certification with a different instructor in the dive shop. When we got in the van she asked me if I wanted to sit up front to be able to talk to Gavin. He was still in the office.

"Not really," I said.

"Me neither," she said. "I don't like him. He's strange and rather an idiot."


We talked on the drive to Cape Town about why she had left South Africa and was now living in London (she had only come back for a few weeks to visit friends and family). She had a long list of reasons ranging from government corruption to low wages to safety concerns. Coming from Jo'burg originally, she thought Cape Town seemed amazingly tranquil and safe. I told her I thought it was tranquil, but it was the sort of tranquility that could make you think it was safer than it actually was.

When Gavin dropped me off, I was surprised to see him stick out his hand with a wad of cash. It was 170 of the 270 rand I had paid for the second dive. I didn't want to raise the issue with Gavin but had planned to talk to the travel company I had booked with (and paid through) instead. Even though it wasn't the full 270 (I'm not sure if it was because Gavin felt 170 was a generous rebate or because he just couldn't count), I was willing to let it slide. But it was now nearly 5:00 PM. It had taken 10 hours of my day to go on one dive a mere 30 minutes away from Cape Town by car and a 10 minute boat ride from the shore. In the Galapagos, well-organized operators would drive you an hour to the opposite end of the island, put you on a 90 minute boat ride each way and still have you back within 8 or 9 hours with time for lunch and a snack thrown in to boot. This only cost about $10 or $15 more. Scuba Duh was far, far, far more disorganized than any dive company I have dealt with so far. But I never knew that it would be possible for me to easily freeze myself nearly to death off the African coast, so at least I can thank them for teaching me that I can. I can imagine Gavin sincerely accepting my thanks, too.

Posted by Joshua on April 3, 2005 08:14 AM
Category: South Africa

Africa sounds like a genuinely lovely place, Josh. I believe all you need to cap off the trip now is a swift kick to the groin!

Posted by: David on April 8, 2005 03:56 PM

David, funny you mention that. Stay tuned for the soon-to-be-posted next entry entitled: "A Swift Kick to the Groin." Seriously, though, despite the tone of the last few entries (and in particular the two I just posted for April 4), its hardly been a bad time here in Cape Town. I am working on a few other posts that aren't quite so jaded. And, of course, one or two that are.

Posted by: Josh on April 9, 2005 12:43 PM
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