Umkomaas, January 2007

Umkomaas was a quiet, seaside place. I didn't arrive until the 2nd week in January and apparently that's when the schools go back, so it was pretty quiet having been really busy the previous week. There were some nice restaurants, a few takeaways and several pubs. The pubs seemed fairly segregated. There was one big one in the middle of town, which seemed to have an entirely black clientele, and about four other smaller ones, which were almost exclusively white. It was in Umkomaas that I discovered the national sport of South Africa. It's not rugby or cricket. It's drink driving. I saw people barely able to walk stagger off to their cars and no questions were asked. There is supposed to be a crackdown, but bear it in mind if you're on the roads there at night.

The main reason for coming to Umkomaas was the Aliwal Shoals, a rocky reef system just off the coast. At the right time of year, they're a popualr spot for all sorts of sharks. Unfortunately, January didn't appear to be the best time. I dived with Aliwal Dive Charters. There are several operators in town, but they were the nearest to the place that I was staying. Like most South African diving, it's a surf launch in a RIB. There is a river at Umkomaas, which means it's easier to put the kit in the boat and it does reduce the waves a bit. Everyone has to wear a life jacket as you go out through the waves and there are straps to put your feet in. If that all sounds very hardcore, it wasn't really. The boat skippers were very good at timing their runs, so that the boat wasn't unduly hit by large waves. With someone who didn't know what they were doing, it would be a different story, but I certainly wasn't hanging on for dear life.

The dive briefs made it clear that you were responsible for your own profile and plan. A guide would jump in with a permanent surface marker buoy. You just had to make sure you could see them, so that you could go back up the line on your ascent. Given the 25m viz, this wasn't exactly a challenge.

The site itself is underwater rocks, covered in life. There are various sponges, soft corals and even some of the hard corals that can cope with the cooler waters. It was 25°C in January, though is obviously a lot cooler in the winter. Fish life was prolific. There weren't many sharks. I saw one white tipped shark and there were a couple of what they guide called “sand sharks”, which looked suspiciously like shovel nosed rays to me, but it was good to see them nonetheless. There were also plenty of blue stingrays and something that looked shark shaped, but was actually the Natal Sea Catfish.

I'm used to seeing red-toothed trigger fish in the Maldives, where they're really common, but they've always been quite timid there. At the Aliwal Shoals, they were quite feisty, defending their territory. They were probably nesting. There were also a lot of octopus on all the dives, turtles and plenty of lobsters.

The deepest dive was 23m, the rest were around the 16-14m range and we had good dive times of 55+ minutes. There was no hurrying you out of the water. You went up when you and your buddy needed to because of your air. Despite the lack of sharks, it is still a great dive. I'll just have to go back when the ragged tooth and tiger sharks are passing through.