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It’s a rare treat in the Overberg when the wind drops. Although not quite Port Elizabeth, whose legendary gales make it South Africa’s reigning “Windy City”, up here in the hills with distant views of Cape Agulhas and the mighty meeting place of two great oceans it does tend to blow. But on this particular morning there’s barely a breath and the sea through my binoculars looks like glass. All of which is a good thing, because in just a couple of hours I am going to be in it and face to face with a great white shark. Or two!
It’s been an early morning wake-up call at Farm 215, a groundbreaking eco-tourism retreat and 800 ha nature reserve close to Stanford. Owner Maarten Groos did the honours just before sun-up with a rap on the door of my contemporary modern and cleanly “green” suite, which has been my base for the last couple of days, allowing me to explore this wonderfully off-the-beaten track region, with its historic settlements like Elim and Tesselaarsdal and quirky little villages like the curiously named Baardskeerdersbos.
Farm 215 is located bang-smack in the middle of one of the most important areas of the Cape Floral Kingdom. I am, quite literally, surrounded by fynbos, a lot of it rare and endemic. It colours everything, from the surrounding landscape with its millions of bright flowers to even the water, which is sourced directly from the mountain catchment and looks like tea but tastes incredible and makes one hell of a herbal bath!
Groos is passionate about sustainability and responsibility, particularly to the environment, and this is reflected in every aspect of Farm 215, from its commitment to conserving the pristine eco-system surrounding it to the recycling of waste water, use of organic products where possible and policy of local procurement.
It’s a deep-seated ethos that has earned the farm accreditation with Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa (FTTSA) and has won it a handful of responsible tourism awards.
Indeed, the FTTSA label is well represented in the region, with another award-winning South African icon – Grootbos – just a short distance away in the Overstrand region outside Hermanus and two shark cage dive operators – White Shark Projects and Marine Dynamics – both located in Kleinbaai, next door to Gansbaai, the capital of South Africa’s shark cage diving industry. Which is of some comfort to me as I bid Farm 215 farewell, embarking on the half-hour drive to my date with the ocean’s most frightening fish.
An hour later and I am aboard a White Shark Projects boat and could be forgiven for thinking that I am in Mauritius. The weather is balmy and the mirror-like ocean azure in colour and crystal clear to boot. The only difference is that the sea’s temperature is only 11 degree Celsius, and I’m having to inch on a 7mm thick wetsuit to brave the chilly waters in a cage big enough for me and four others. A cage which, as I finally get all zips fastened and mask at the ready, is being circled by two 3,5m great whites.
It’s a strange anomaly that shark cage diving has very little to do with actual diving. As I lower myself into the freezing Atlantic I automatically hold my breath, which is what I’ll be doing every time a shark swims past for the next half an hour or so – holding my breath and ducking beneath the surface to marvel at the steely grey denizen of the deep made infamous by Steven Spielberg’s first major hit movie “Jaws”.
Whatever fear there may have been dissipates the minute I submerge and come face to face for the first time with the incredible great white. It’s a magnificent animal and the thrill of seeing it at such close quarters in its natural habitat far outweighs any apprehension.
The subsequent minutes blur together as we listen for skipper Grant Tuckett’s instructions and time our breaths to match. “Down, left. Down ahead. Down below.” We follow Tucket to the letter and the result is constant interaction with six different sharks, the closest of which was a mere 20cm from me with only the steel bars of the cage between us. It’s a humbling experience, being in the presence of such raw power. And the perfect way to end a visit to this beautiful and largely undiscovered area of the Western Cape, where fynbos meets fins.