Updated: Oct 22, 2021
I am sure we are all familiar with the term "pre-COVID" by now, but this, dear readers, is truly something amazing that came from "pre-COVID" days, through COVID, and came out the other side as an amazing experience.
It all started early in 2020, shortly after Blacktip Life was born. The plan was to arrange a diving trip to Mafia Islands, Tanzania. The trip was planned for September 2021. Preparations began, bookings were made, guests started confirming and then... as unexpected as the pop from a blown o-ring.... LOCKDOWN!!! "Pffffft how bad can it possibly be?" "3 Weeks max "we said... how disturbingly wrong could we not all have been. The 3 turned into 5, the five turned into decades and soon enough we were all scuba deprived, depressed, home dwelling zombies, looking for the very first chance to go below the surface and taste the sweet sweet taste of compressed air.
As countries started to open up again early 2021, we were still quite positive that we will be able to go on our Mafia Island trip. But after open discussions with all our guests and the fact that we would be required to spend 2 weeks in quarantine, we decided to rather stay within the borders of our own amazing country, and do a "Local is lekker" trip all around the coast of South-Africa.
It was on a certain Saturday, after Maria and myself had completed our theory section of our Rescue Diver Course, somewhere in week 433 of lockdown, that we were standing at a friends place, glasses filled with what can only be described as cooldrink, thinking about and discussing the upcoming "Local is lekker" trip. It was then that we looked at each other and immediately had the same light bulb moment. WRECKS!!! Yes, we all know that our beautiful coast is renowned to make wrecks out of perfectly sound and unsound seafaring vessels and scuba divers alike. Our "Local is lekker" trip evolved into a "Local is WRECKer" trip.
The initial plan was to start in Cape-Town, and work our way along the eastern coast until we reached Richards Bay on the North Coast. More than 2500 shipwrecks have occurred along the South-African coast since the 1500's. Most of these wrecks are either to shallow or to deep to safely dive within recreational diving limits. Below, just a few of the recorded Wrecks.
Picture courtesy of ResearchGate
The second limiting factor was the time allocated for our trip, as we only had 7 days to our disposal. The third limiting factor was the weather. Although September is the start of Spring in South-Africa, the Western Cape, and especially the Eastern Cape is known for bad weather conditions during the month of September and October. The last major factor was our budget. Coming out of basically 18 months of lockdown had a big impact on our wallets. Finally, after long discussions with specialists in the field and operators along the coast, we decided to focus our trip on the Wrecks around Umkomaas and Durban on the Kwazulu-Natal Coastline. The plan, to dive 5 Wrecks in 7 days. The wrecks being:
The Nebo - 1884 - Aliwal Shoal
The MV Produce - 1974 - Aliwal Shoal
Cooper's Light - Date not known - Durban
Fontao - 1990 - Umhlanga
T-Barge 1990 - Umhlanga
Both the Nebo and the MV Produce are well known wrecks on the Aliwal Shoal. The Cooper's Light, T-Barge and Fontao, not that much. Fishermen frequent these wrecks quite often to catch bait, but they are not known for great scuba diving.
With our plan in mind, there was really only one scuba diving operator which we knew for a fact would be up for the challenge. We have built a strong relationship with them over the past few years, and we knew they would pull out all stops to make this trip happen. Not only happen, but make it absolutely EPIC!!! ScubaCo Diving and Travel in Umkomaas of course! Our first consultation with Tamara and Dean went something like this:
Derick: "We want to do 5 wrecks in 7 days"
Tamara: "No Problem"
Derick: "We want you to take us to all of them"
Tamara: "No Problem"
Derick: "We also want to stay with you at 32 on Harvey and travel into and out of Durban"
Tamara: "No Problem"
Derick: "We also want snacks, brunches, and lunchboxes for the Durban dives"
Tamara: "No Problem"
Derick: "We want Dean to skip the boats"
Tamara: "No Problem"
And as easy as that, the planning was done. Nothing is ever too big for Tamara and Dean to handle. They really take the pain out of planning a trip. (No this is not a sponsored piece)
As the days came closer, we were all waiting anxiously for the time to arrive. Excitement went through the proverbial roof, although I like to refer to it as the thermocline. At last it was time.
My wife, Amadia and I, decided to travel a day earlier. Travelling from Pretoria, it is a 7 hour drive to Umkomaas. We decided to overnight in the quaint little town of Hilton. Now to be honest about this, I had no idea that this absolute gem of a town even existed prior to this trip. The town lies on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, and there are some famous schools in the area, but rather go read up on it... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilton,_KwaZulu-Natal
Should you wish to smash down a couple of beers and stuff your face with some awesome woodfired pizza, I can definitely recommend Crossways Pub and Restaurant. https://crosswayspub.co.za. The atmosphere is great and there is a great vibe all over the village.
Guest Houses are easy to find and absolutely great!
Crossways Pub and Reastaurant
The Old Railway Station and Museum
Heading towards Umkomaas the next morning, it was a short 90 minute drive to reach our destination. As always, we were greeted warmly by Tamara and the Team from Scubaco Diving and Travel. The rooms were all made up and we were ready to receive our guests. On arrival guests were registered and Covid screened and then shown to their rooms and taken on a tour around the property.
Welcome gifts complete with Cap, Shirt, Bandana and Ocean bag
ScubaCo Towel Art
It was Sunday, and we were waiting for the last guests to arrive. Our week of Wreck diving was about to begin... But then... it happened...! You see, in most towns that rely on tourists for their income, weekends are their busiest times, and they mostly work over the weekends, and do not always have the opportunity like the rest of us to relax and unwind on a Friday or Saturday evening. But then, on a Sunday, when all the tourists and weekenders go home, all hell breaks loose, and something called "Umkomaas Friday" happens. The place to be? Blue Ocean Dive Resort, a minute's walk from 32 on Harvey where we were staying. Cold beer, good food, awesome company and pumping music! What better way to start of a week of Wreck Diving! Try it, you will not regret it! And in the words of Forrest Gump "And that is all I have to say about that"
"Umkomaas Friday" on a Sunday at Blue Ocean Dive Resort
The weather was looking great for Monday and Tuesday, with conditions expecting to deteriorate towards the coming weekend. With that being said, we were there on a mission, and we were determined to reach our goal.
Rising early on the Monday morning, our gear was all packed out by the friendly staff at ScubaCo. Early morning snacks complete with fruit, toast, Blacktip Rusks and Freshly brewed Blacktip Roast coffee was all put out for our guests to enjoy. With indemnities signed and launch sheets completed, it was time to hit the ocean. From Scubaco it is a short 5 minutes drive to the beach, where the briefings took place as well as where the boats are being launched from.
Our first dive was on the Nebo, which sank in 1884. This 2000 ton steamship sank on 20th May 1884 just north of the Aliwal Shoal. She was on her maiden voyage from Sunderland to Durban, carrying the Van Standen’s (Amanzimtoti) railway bridge, although there is no certainty; there are two stories of how Nebo became a wreck. Some experts reported that she sunk due to incorrect loading and she was very top heavy, when she confronted rough seas, she simply tipped over and sank. There is more credibility to this story, as the Nebo is lying upside down, 24-27 metres below sea level. Other experts reported that she hit the Northern pinnacles of Aliwal Shoal.
Photo Courtesy of Wrecksite
The wreck, which is over a century old, is broken into two main parts. If the visibility allows you, or there is a very experienced dive master with you, it is a simple navigation exercise to get from one part to the other.
The Nebo is home to a huge variety of fish life. One very regular fish species found swimming in and out of the wreck on this reef is the Natal catfish. Harlequin Goldies, which are endemic to this area, are also seen on the Nebo. Round ribbon tail rays, sharp nose stingrays and grey spot guitarfish are just a few locals in the sand around this wreck. Squid and scorpionfish are also found around and in this wreck with some fusiliers, tuna and Hammerhead sharks. Soft coral like Green Fern coral, different colors of coral and green and yellow turret coral are also found on this wreck.