It’s Definitely Better in the Bahamas!

Team Indian Valley had the pleasure to visit the Bahamas for seventeen wonderful days in April, representing Indian Valley Travel as we visited several new exciting destinations for future visits, and finally enjoying a weeklong Indian Valley Scuba charter on the Aquacat liveaboard. During this arduous journey, our hard working “scouts” spent time visiting several other resorts and dive operators there to expand Indian Valley Travel’s firsthand knowledge of our expanded choices of offerings in the Bahamas. And amazingly, every choice was a great one, so we have to call this trip an absolute success! So with that said, please sit back and enjoy our tale of travel and adventure as we try to bring the best of the Bahamas to you!

Day 1 Thursday 4/10  Like any good international adventure, we start the journey with our standard ‘running just a little bit late’ approach to Philadelphia International Airport, our launch point for this trip. To be honest, Shirley and I had spent a busy night packing and actually headed down to the airport in what I felt was more than sufficient time. Unfortunately that estimation did not take into account some heavier-than-normal morning traffic, which required some last-minute adjustments, such as parking at the closer but somewhat more expensive Wally Park versus the tried and true, and economical Smart Park lot. Yet even with that costly adjustment, our shuttle driver felt as if his personal mission this morning was to pick up everyone in the lot, and after three or five times of me saying “Hey, please, our flight is already boarding; can we just head to the airport and let another driver pick up a few customers?” he finally picked up on our sense of urgency, and we left the lot for the short jaunt to the airport.

Finally...we've arrived!

Finally…we’ve arrived!

We pull up in front of the Delta terminal and as I hurriedly tipped our driver and grabbed our bags, I encouraged Shirley to hustle over to the Delta counter to get the check-in process started. There were a few folks already in the premium line, and we all know how shy Shirley is, so I had to work all my puppy dog smiles and eyelash batting to get them to all let us cut in front of the line.   Well Ms. Lucinda, the Delta ticket agent, had picked up on my slick moves, and I guess when she woke up this morning, some little voice inside her head told her that her role today was to be the ‘Queen of the Airport’, so as I approached her, smiling and being sweet, she quickly put me in place, demanding to know what flight I was on and how did I manage to get in front of all those folks who were patiently waiting to pay her homage. So I told her that everyone (except her) understood my urgency, as our flight to Atlanta, and connection to Nassau, is scheduled to be “wheels up” in just 25 minutes from now. “Well”, she told me with an air of self-appointed authority, “you are late for your check in and we can’t take your bags”. “Stop, breathe, relax, restrain, repeat…..” is what MY inner voice was saying, as I brought every bit of self-control that I had in me to be able to respond sweetly to this little bundle of negativity that was threatening to urinate on my morning’s parade. I am sensing that perhaps she just felt an inner need to read someone the official Delta Riot Act that morning, slowly and with exaggerated punctuation, and somehow I have been selected to be the one to help her get past that! I really wondered where I sinned recently for this to be happening to me right now, but there was no way around Ms. Lucinda on my path the Bahamas, sooooo, I smiled, acknowledged everything she said, complimented her on educating me on how to be a better flyer, fully admitted to being late, and kinda felt like I was back where we started, but down to 22 minutes until takeoff now.   So, throwing caution to the wind, I cautiously brought up that I “knew” that the best Delta agents, of which I assured her that she must be one, could make this happen for their most loyal customers (like me). Well it seems that our little airline professional just needed a little complimentary hug this morning, and I was ready to deliver, and before you know it, she managed to get it done.  Bags checked, boarding passes issued, and we’re off to security, but not before I asked her to call the gate and tell them we’re on our way. Why we need to play these games I will never know, but I was thankful that I was able to satisfy her today! Of course, the security line is backed up, but we weasel our way to the front [more puppy dog eyes here and plenty of ‘pleases’ and ‘thank you’s’], and finally, we end up stepping aboard the plane at 8:53 for a 9:00 flight, encouraged by the gate agents shouting our names over the loudspeaker all the way down the terminal…nothing like a little adrenalin rush to start off the adventure! The important thing is we’re finally on our way!

South Bimini

South Bimini

Once we land in Nassau, we quickly cleared Bahamian Customs, retrieved our bags, and navigated our way over to domestic departures to find the friendly folks at Western Air waiting for us to board our flight (what a surprise!) to South Bimini Island. Thirty minutes later, we land, grab a taxi, and $10 later we were standing in front of Neal Watson’s Bimini Sands Resort!


Neal Watson’s Bimini Sands Resort

We were here as guests of the Watson family, and honored that they had reached out to us, eager to show their brand to Indian Valley Travel. Neal’s daughter Beth runs the operation from her office in Fort Lauderdale, while her bother Neal Jr. runs the dive operation on site. This very nice condo marina consists of 260 units, with a mix of configurations ranging from one to four bedrooms, either located right on marina with a slip in front of the unit, or directly on the beautiful white sand beach. They broke ground on the project in 1995, with a few slowdowns based on the economy, coupled with an “island time” construction schedule, but we got to see the last few units nearing completion. The docks and marina are first class and you got a sense of that from some of the upscale yachts that were visiting while we were there.  With two nice pools, including an infinity pool on the ocean front, a half mile of beautiful white sand beach, the dive center and a water sports activity center right on site, and a great little restaurant open for breakfast and lunch, you don’t need to leave the property for much of anything.

Bimini Sands Resort & Marina

Bimini Sands Resort & Marina

Our unit was a one bedroom, with a nice kitchen, living room, and patio right on the water. Like the entire island of South Bimini, it was quiet, relaxing and very nicely done. The dive operation was very laid back and relaxed, with Neal Jr. captaining a 40 ft. Carlton boat, roomy, wide, stable and very comfortable for diving. His crew was personable and helpful, as he put a DM in the water on every dive to lead or observe.

Stay off the sidewalks, Valaika's at the wheeel and we're driving on the wrong side of the road!

Stay off the sidewalks, Valaika’s at the wheeel and we’re driving on the wrong side of the road!

Day 2 Friday 4/11  We awoke to a pretty good wind blowing this morning so we decided to check out the island today. We rented a golf cart and toured the entire island; all 5 miles long and one mile wide. Saw our first example of wildlife, a cat that surely had no luck at all, as it had been run over on the road, and with only about a dozen cars and 50 golf carts comprising all the traffic on the island, you know this cat had to have used up all nine of his lives. All this touring was working up our thirsts, so we stopped at one of the three watering holes on the island, a little combination gift shop / luncheonette / bar located next the airport. There we met the proprietress, Ms. Deandra, a “seaweed” from the island of Abacos. She had come over as a housekeeper at small motel, and saw the opportunity in this closed business. With $25 to invest in inventory, she opened up serving breakfast one morning, and before lunch, she had enough income to buy fixings to make lunch sandwiches and stayed open. She opened for diner the very next day, and is doing great in her new enterprise. She was a hoot to talk to, very articulate and astute, and we spent the better part of the afternoon listening to her share some local Bahamas knowledge and life experiences. The term “seaweed” is a derogatory slang word for Bahamians who come from other islands within the Bahamas to work. Truth be told, there’s about 1,000 residents on South Bimini who obviously aren’t inspired enough to work so there’s room for others to come in and fill the job openings, earning the moniker ‘seaweed’. During our chat she gave us a tour of the place, showed us some of the artwork for sale in the gift shop, and her little kitchen where she prepared our lunch. She told us of a local woman who had come to the airport to take a flight with her two pet cats, and somehow one of the carriers had opened up and the cat bolted from the taxi right there at the airport. She came by every day, calling for her cat, and crying, leaving food bowls out and hoping her kitty comes home. Deandra showed us the “Missing Cat” poster she had put up, and as soon as we saw it, we knew we recognized that cat…but not in a way that we wanted to share. Oh well, some stories are best left untold – we didn’t have the heart to tell her that I think we found the missing cat.   Oh well, we finished up our beers, and got a few to go in our golf cart – I love this place…it’s 100% legal in the Bahamas to drink while driving! There are only two restaurants on the island, so tonight we headed up the beach road to the Conch Club, owned by Bimini Sands. It’s actually three establishments in one, the restaurant, a beach bar, and a sports bar, located right on the waterfront with a marina on one side and a beach of the other, complete with dive shop, tiki bar, kayak rentals and beach volleyball. All your bases covered in location! Dinner was great, and for seeing no one all day long, the place was jamming. Turns out a lot of folks take the water taxi over from North Bimini Island to enjoy the facilities here.

Day 3 Sat 4/12 DSCF3891Winds had died down during the night, so we headed out with Neal Jr. to dive this morning and enjoyed two tanks on the reef. Colorful, good fish life, healthy corals and sponges, and lots of variety. First dive was a leisurely drift dive, and the second was moored. Had a special moment on the second dive as I was off dinking around in the sand, just running my fingers along under the surface, seeing what might pop up. Well gosh, what a surprise, when a beautiful stargazer shook the sand off and lifted up gracefully, before settling back down to observe what my intentions were. We watched each other for a bit, my very first encounter with this species of unique bottom dweller. Very cool and made for a very memorable dive!

Percy Cavill's Conch House, or what is left of it

Percy Cavill’s Conch House, or what is left of it

Back to the condo, I rinsed the gear off and laid it out to dry. Shirley & I headed out for dinner to a local eatery, the Thirsty Turtle, which as I pulled in, for some reason, the place looked familiar. Well truth be told it was Neal Watson’s original property here, with dive shop, motel, and restaurant – I’ve looked at this place in brochures and on line for years and pretty funny to be standing there now, knowing that I’m staying at the new and improved version. Anyways, there were no cars in the lot, but I tried the door and it was open. The bar was empty, but the lights were on, and the liquor all out, so kinda odd that no one was there. I opened the door to the kitchen, saw that the food was all still out, so I shouted, and got no answer. Too weird to hang around any longer, so we left and did some more touring, taking in the Fountain of Youth park and nature trail, and the Bimini Sands Nature Trail, which was a really well done pathway through the bush with lots of informative signage and quite a bit to see, including the ruins of a beachfront mansion, built from conch shells, which was constructed by an alcoholic former Australian Olympic Gold Medal winning swimmer who had come to America to work and ended working on the island, teaching swimming at a local hotel, which was subsequently destroyed by a hurricane. How’s that for a bit of local colorful history?  With the two local ‘must-see’s’ off the list, we motored back over to the Thirsty Turtle and found the place hopping. We must have just hit it during siesta time earlier, so chalk that up to a local interesting experience. The food was great, the ambience pretty special, and we’ve got another eatery to recommend on South Bimini Island! Overall, we give the Bimini Sands Resort and Neal Watsons Underwater Bahamas two big thumbs up!

Day 4 Sunday 4/13 Checkout day today from Bimini Sands, so we returned our golf cart, and caught the taxi to the water taxi landing, for the five minute ferry ride across the channel that separates the two major Bimini islands. The third island, West Bimini, is an uninhabited strip of rock and sand about a half mile away.

Bimini Big Game Club

Bimini Big Game Club

The ferry driver was kind enough to take us right to our destination, the Bimini Big Game Club, where we met our host and the resort manager, Michael Weber, and he showed us around the property and gave us the story behind one of the most famous fishing clubs in the Caribbean. A favorite haunt of an all-star cast of famous fishermen, including Ernest Hemingway, Zane Gray, and Michael Lerner, the island of North Bimini is one of the top destinations worldwide for bonefish, marlin, dolphin, wahoo and a number of other sports fish. There are two basic accommodations here, a standard motel-type room, and one-bedroom cottages that have an interconnecting door, ideal for families. With slips for yachts in excess of 100 ft. in length, there are plenty of chances to rub elbows with the rich and famous in a casual and fun setting. In fact we ran into John Havlacek, former Boston Celtic and teammate of Larry Bird, and it turns out that he, along with quite a few of his NBA friends, frequent the island in pursuit of catching bonefish on light tackle in the flats. Our room is in the main building here, with a nice view of the courtyard and pool. It’s an older property, but more than sufficient for divers, fishermen, or anyone who is looking to enjoy the quieter end of North Bimini Island. Also on site is a an excellent restaurant overlooking the marina, Hemingway’s Rum & Cigar Bar and Lounge, a recreation area with pool tables and games, a small retail store for your incidentals, the marina, and of course, the BBGC dive center.

BBGC's Boston Whaler, perfect for small groups

BBGC’s Boston Whaler, perfect for small groups

The dive center is managed by DeVito, a local professional with many years in the industry. In fact, some years back, he used to run Neal Watson’s operation on the South island, so he’s got plenty of local knowledge of the area, the people and the marine environment. A true professional, he runs the dive center in a relaxed and no-stress sort of way, perfect to compliment your Bahamas vacation experience. They operate two boats, a large multi-use boat that offers glass bottom tours, snorkeling, and diving for larger groups, and a smaller Boston Whaler, perfect for small groups of 4 or 5 divers. In addition, they offer a very unique activity right in the marina – cage diving for bull sharks! They have a permanent cage attached to one of the docks, and a hookah setup, so divers and non-divers alike can enjoy very up close and personal observations of a number of larger bulls that have grown accustomed over the years to the offerings that come from the many fish that are cleaned in the marina. This is a great opportunity to let everyone in your party get a taste of scuba diving without any stress or training.

Day 5 Monday 4/14  Another unseasonably windy morning greeted us, and just as well, as Indian Valley Scuba has been selected by the producers of ION Television for a documentary on companies that dare to be a little different than the pack, and IVS’s business mantra, “the deliberately different dive center” is a perfect match for this series on ION. With IVS’s Special Events Coordinator Jay Burkos coordinating the teleconference from home, I’m able to attend a two-hour planning session discussion with members of the TV production company, ION’s management, and our team in Harleysville, we’re able to cover a lot of ground and hopefully we’ll see this project coming to fruition in the near future! With the wind not dying down, we decide to rent another golf cart and tour the island. The southern end, where we’re staying, is the heart of the residential area, with most of the 3,000 island residents, and a slew of local eateries, located right here. As you move north, you enter the Resorts World Casino property, a massive planned community, with gated residential areas, a gaming casino, a couple of high end restaurants, and some nice high-end shops. They run a fleet of high-speed ferries to shuttle cruise ship passengers to the casino, and also run some larger ones back and forth to Florida, which sits only 48 miles away from North Bimini. So for about three quarts of petrol, we’re able to cover every single paved and unpaved road on North Bimini. For dinner we stop along our tour at the Anchorage, a resort built in the 30’s by Michael Lerner, founder of Lerner Stores across the U.S. There’s quite a bit of history here, and it turns out it was a favorite haunt of Earnest Hemingway who loved fishing for marlin and swordfish here.

Day 6 Tuesday 4/15  Morning dawned and not a palm tree was swaying – a perfectly calm day to head out in the Whaler to visit the fishes. DeVito had a young couple from Switzerland there for a Discover Scuba experience, and one other diver who was with a yoga retreat group at the resort. Our first site was a pretty reef area, and our second site was for a shark ‘baiting’, not exactly a feed, but rather a suspended chum bucket to entice the sharks. There’s plenty of reef sharks with some nice eight footers mixed in, so it made for a nice experience for the Swiss couple for sure. And back at the dock it seems the bull sharks have taken the past few weeks off for a vacation of sorts, eliminating that optional bull shark cage diving experience from our list of activity choices. Oh well….as the Arnold would say……..”we’ll be back!” Speaking of ‘back’, we gussied ourselves up and headed back out in our cart to enjoy dinner at a local pizza pub, capping off another great day in the Bahamas. Overall, I give the Bimini Big Game Club, and island of North Bimini, an enthusiastic two thumbs up, and would recommend it for divers, fishermen, and families alike.

Day 7 Wednesday 4/16 Another morning in paradise, and time to check out and head over to the next phase of this research effort, which will take place on new Providence Island. So we pack everything up, check out of the resort, jump on the water taxi over to South Bimini Island, and jump into a cab there for the short ride to Bimini International Airport. A few minutes into our ride, the cabbie pulls over, and asks if we would like anything to drink from the liquor store, cause he’s getting a beer! Remember, it’s completely legal here to drink while driving, so hey, when in Rome…..

Air ambulance back to the mainland for treatment - $$$

Air ambulance back to the mainland for treatment – $$$

Never in the history of aviation was a sturdier plane built than the DC3 and the number of them flying since the 1930's is proof of that!

Never in the history of aviation was a sturdier plane built than the DC3 and the number of them flying since the 1930’s is proof of that!

We arrive at the airport, and as we begin to check in an ambulance pulls up, with a woman in a wheelchair and her family in tow. Turns out she had gotten ill during their vacation here, and with no real medical resources the best approach was to arrange and air ambulance back to Florida. We wished her the best, and I sense things all turned out well, but I wanted to share this experience to illustrate the value of travel insurance, and specifically travel emergency insurance such as that offered by Indian Valley Travel and Divers Alert Network to cover unplanned expenses such as that chartered air ambulance ride back to a place where you can get the proper medical treatment that you deserve, without digging a huge hole in your pocket along the way. Things to add to your travel-planning list!

Finally, with the air ambulance off, and a DC3 dating from a half a century ago but still active as a freight carrier coming in to land, and we’re ready to board our twelve seater for our trip back to Nassau. We arrive without any surprises, grab a cab, and pull into Orange Hill Guest House, our accommodations for the next three nights.   Orange Hill is pretty neat place, built just 33 years ago, and the front counter is staffed by the very first guest to ever stay there…..pretty neat, eh? We’ve got a standard room looking out over the pool, and enjoy dinner right there at the resort that evening before calling it a night.

Stuart Cove's

Stuart Cove’s

One hoppin' dive operation, and the movie set from 'Flipper' to boot!

One hoppin’ dive operation, and the movie set from ‘Flipper’ to boot!

Day 8 Thursday 4/17 Another morning and another dive boat calling my name, this time it’s Stuart Cove’s Diving that will be our host for the next few days. A short ride later, we arrive at the dive center, and wow, what a picture of organization they have going there! As we pull in and get organized, I am suffering from a deja vu sort of moment there looking at the property. Well, my mind is not playing games with me; the truth is that the entire property was built as a Hollywood set for the Flipper TV show from the 60’s! As a kid I remember watching that show weekly, and here I stand playing back bits of scenes in my mind as I look at the various boathouses, store fronts and docks that played such a big part in the show. We’ve got a morning 2-tank dive arranged for today, so we quickly are processed through the uber-efficient registration station, staffed by a super friendly and very upbeat crew of pink-shirt wearing smiling members of the Stuart Cove team. I get assigned to a boat with some other more experienced divers, and I head on down with my gear to begin setting up. I notice one fellow on board that seems to be, shall we say, more than amply equipped for the dives I am expecting we’ll be doing this morning. He’s got a stage bottle, several reels, canister lighting, a couple of lift bags….you get the picture. Well as we head out on our ten minute ride to the site, the lead divemaster asks if I have a buddy, and I say no, so he asks if I’ll buddy up with the fellow I was just describing. Well of course I will, so it gives me a chance to chat with him and find out what’s up with his kit. Yes, you know it….another small, small world moment……it turns out my new buddy is Matt David, and he’s a student of my good friend and fellow technical instructor Bernie Chowdbury in New York. He’s enrolled in some TDI training with Bernie and had come here, rather than Dutch Springs, to get a few warm-up / practice dives in before his classes start at Dutch Springs with Bernie.   Hence the extensive kit; all part of his standardized tec rig that he’ll be using in his classes and he wanted to get some time in practicing his self drills and making adjustments before he finds himself standing in front of the master! We enjoy a couple of great dives, and I share some coaching moments with him that helps him achieve better poise in the water, as we enjoy a double wreck dive on our second location with some nice penetration. Very cool, and Bernie and I chat later that evening; turns out Matt has already checked in with his teacher so we all get a good chuckle about this fate meeting so far from home. That afternoon, Shirley and I grab a cab and do a little shopping on the island, picking up some supplies for the Aquacat trip and doing a little sightseeing around the island, before stopping for dinner at the Poop Deck, right on the water in Sandy Beach. Great dinner, great evening, and we call it an early night.

Ready to roll...and play with the sharks at Stuart Cove's

Ready to roll…and play with the sharks at Stuart Cove’s

Day 9 Friday 4/18 Double dipping with Stuart Cove’s today, starting with a morning 2-tank trip to a wall and reef location. Back at the dock, we enjoy some really fine luncheon fare prepared by the staff at the dockside grille, all part of the Stuart Cove’s experience. The dive center is really well thought out and organized, and the amenities abound with an abundance of activities to choose from on the dock. As mentioned earlier, the staff gushes with positive attitude and helpfulness – the management at Stuart Cove’s deserve high marks for building such a model dive center, and I am honored and thankful that we were invited to experience everything they do so well here, and bring that message home to share with clients looking for great experiences in the Bahamas. Dinner this evening was a short walk from Orange Hill, at Café West, a local pizza pub about a mile up the road. Great food, reasonable prices, and a friendly staff, and we leave smiling at yet another superb Bahamas evening.

The Aquacat awaits!

The Aquacat awaits!

Day 10 Saturday 4/19 Well today’s a special day, as the rest of our group are flying in to join us for our weeklong charter on the Aqua Cat liveaboard. Shirley and I enjoy a relaxing morning catching up on emails (my last chance for a week) before checking out of Orange Hill and taking a taxi over to Paradise Island and the marina. Just as I’m getting ready to shut the laptop down, Mike Parzynski updates his status on Facebook….”So I’m sitting at the Green Parrot bar getting ready to board the Aqua Cat, and I strike up a conversation with a group of Canadians there. They ask what I’m doing, and I tell them I’m with the Indian Valley Scuba group, and one of group says “With Dave Valaika?” Just amazing who knows this guy!” Turns out the fellow who mentioned my name is Frank Owens, an old friend of mine and our former sales rep for Atomic and a few other lines. He heard IVS had chartered half the boat and figured we’d be a fun group to dive with, so when he saw one of his clients, Water Sports Scuba in Toronto, Canada had chartered the other half of the boat, he knew he had to jump on! Small, small world!

Doing my part to help keep the Bahama's moving!

Doing my part to help keep the Bahama’s moving!

It was pouring rain as Shirley and I taxied over, and as we pulled into the parking lot, I watched a van back down the hill and run it’s ass end right up and over a concrete abutment. Rear wheels completely off the ground and spinning, the driver was clearly out of her element with the situation. I gave her a few minutes of senseless revving of the engine, then walked over laughing and offered to give her a hand. Turns out our cab driver had a nylon sling, and another fellow had stopped in a 4-wheel drive pickup, so we had all the necessary ingredients to make this happen. Ten minutes later, I ended up mud-covered and getting a big hug from a very grateful driver whose day had just turned around in a great way. All good, and what a great way to start our charter!

Provisions for the week - check!

Provisions for the week – check!

Mike Parz, soon to be known as "Mr. 400"!

Mike Parz, soon to be known as “Mr. 400”!

On board, we met the rest of the folks, including Mike Parzynski, John Glodowski, Frank “Lucky” Macy, Heather, Spencer, Bryce and Brittany Ingram from Rhode Island, Bryan from Florida, and Reinhard & Beata joining us from Vienna, Austria. The Water Sports group included the shop owner, Paul Pelletier, my good friend and former sales rep Frank Owens, Luke McKenzie, Adam Shinehoft, Renee Gaudet, Michael Vandertal, Bill, Paul Tozer, Tak, Sue Miller, Malcolm Mackinnon, all from the Toronto area. It’s only been a few minutes together but I already sense that we have the perfect ingredients for another awesome liveaboard adventure.

The Aquacat crew, first class all the way!

The Aquacat crew, first class all the way!

The crew, led by Capt. Ron and First Mate / Capt. Tom, give us the customary meet & greet introduction experience, covering all the key safety and diving procedures for our journey, and an overview of the planned itinerary for the week ahead. We have four instructors working as our DM’s for the week, Adam, Mick, Julien & Adan, along with Engineers Randy and Jean to keep the equipment humming, and Sous Chef Martine assisting in the galley. ‘House Mouse’ Callula will make sure our housekeeping is in order, and finally, perhaps the most important member of the crew is introduced, Chef Kirk.  The weather report is posted, and we are predicted to have to endure eight straight days of endless sunshine, flat seas, minimal wind, and amazing visibility. This is going to be a tough one for sure, but we’re up for the challenge that lies ahead!


Our gang of adventurers for the week!

Our gang of adventurers for the week!

Day 11 Sunday 4/20 On most liveaboards, the first dive is usually a very controlled experience, so all the once-a-year vacation divers can get a chance to shake the bugs out, get their weighting sorted out, equipment tested, etc. Well here on the Aquacat, they make an assumption that the detailed information we provided in their pre-trip questionnaire was accurate, and that being said, that we are divers who don’t need a lot of handholding. Everyone dives their own profiles, with buddies of their own choosing and without any leading by the crew unless you specifically asked for it. With that in mind, our first dive site is an absolutely beautiful wall, Dog Rocks, with a sheer drop-off of a few thousand feet or so. Everyone nails it, and the week is off to a great start! We end up with four more dives today, including a night dive on the Austin Smith wreck, and the day was interspersed with three great meals and some snacks too. This is truly a first class operation, and we know we have done well with our third, and hardly last, charter of this great boat and crew.

Shark Feed on the Austin Smith wreck

Shark Feed on the Austin Smith wreck

Day 12 Monday 4/21 We start the morning with a shark dive on the wreck we dove as our fifth dive last evening, and that gets the adrenalin pumping a little bit. Plenty to see around the site also, so when you got tired of watching the sharks and groupers hammering the chumsicle, you could just drift off and do your own thing. Another four dives followed, ending with another nice night dive after dinner. During the day, I couldn’t help but watch some of the other dives, and one this I generally notice is trim and attitude in the water. Our Rhode Island family, the Ingram’s, seemed to have an awful lot of lead hanging on their waists, and sure enough, watching them in the water confirmed that there was probably room for some improvement in that area. So, cautiously, I approached them, always careful to avoid being accused of criticizing someone’s diving style, but to their credit, they were very open to talking about ways to improve their diving. So we spent a half hour sharing all things Archimedes, and talked about the risks of overweighting, the obvious symptoms that they should be able to see on themselves and each other, effective bubble management at depth, and how they could all contribute to each others quest for proper weighting. So, with a wee bit of skepticism, they agreed to give it a try, and see if they could part with a bit of lead and still be able to enjoy the great diving this week offered.

Day 13 Tuesday 4/22 Decisions, decisions….upon waking today, we found ourselves forced to make a big one – either start the day off with a dive, or head over to Whelker Cay to visit the Exuma Keys National Park ranger station. Believe it or not, I opted for the park to maintain a sense of topside balance on this trip, and along with about half the group, we piled into the Sea Dog and motored over to the island. On our way in we passed quite a few beautiful yachts of the rich and famous, all moored along the channel while the passengers were enjoying the beautiful waters and white sand beaches of the Bahamas. As we began our hike into the bush, what do I hear but a “Hey, Dave Valaika” coming from a group heading the other way on the trail. Well chalk another one up to the ‘it’s a small world’ department, I look up to see my friend, and PADI inside sales contact, Adam Wucherpfennig, who’s here with a group on the Aquacat’s little sister-ship, the Cat Ppalau. What a hoot, we laugh and share a manly hug, to the amazement of the folks around us…asking what are the odds of running into each other so far away from home? Well with that behind us, we continue on to tour a small portion of the park, visit the famous blowholes, hike to the top of Boo Boo Hill for a photo op, stop to feed some lizards on the beach, and finally swim on the beach before heading back to the mother ship.

Aquacat, the Sea Dog, and our motley crew for the week!

Aquacat, the Sea Dog, and our motley crew for the week!

Back on board, we caught up with the gang from the morning dive, and soon enough, it was time for Dive #2, on Danger Reef. Nice site, lots of large critters here, groupers, sharks, horse-eye jacks, and more. Pleasant dive with Mike P leading the way and snapping photos. The afternoon’s first dive site was Jeep Reef, another collection of coral heads with quite a collection of life large and small. The central point was a coral-covered motorized dump cart that had fallen off a barge years ago, but unless you looked close, you’d think it was at this point just another coral pillar. Pretty awesome to see how some life is just looking for a bit of structure to grab onto and call home. Our late afternoon dive was at Danger Reef, a site similar to Jeep Reef, with the same great viz and 79 degree water that entices you to enjoy each and every dive offered on this charter. Following dinner, Capt. Tom fired up the Sea Dog for a Sunset Booze Cruise, heading over to a local white sandy beach to play in the tidal zone and wrap up the evening for those who chose to not dip back in for the night dive on Jeep Reef. For those of us who did choose to dive, we were not disappointed, with turtles, sharks, lobsters (I had to catch one, just because I can…but safely returned him to his reef after a few picture and videos were shot)

Mike Parz and the famous swimming pigs!

Mike Parz and the famous swimming pigs!

Day 14 Wednesday 4/23 Aqua Cat’s itinerary for this morning was a little different, with no early a.m. dive, rather, a shore excursion to visit the legendary swimming pigs on Big Major Key, and snorkel famous Thunderball Grotto from the James Bond movie of the same name. That was followed by a nice, shallow drift dive along Conch Cut, before we fired up the engines and motored a short distance to our afternoon dive site, Shroud Wall. A really picturesque deep drop-off with the mooring set right on the edge of the wall at 60 ft., and the bottomless abyss just a few short fin kicks away. Personally, I could do dives like this all day long, with sweeping panoramic views of the sheer face dropping down further than the eyes can follow. During that dive I got to watch Capt. Ron in action, as he lowered a hydraulic drill with a long coring bit on it to the bottom, and drilled a pair of nice new mooring anchor holes in the top of the reef substrate. He’s a pretty crafty guy, and I admired the jig he had made up which allowed him to drill the second hole an accurate distance offset from the first, so he could pre-fab his u-shaped stainless steel mooring anchors and have them ready to go, just set them and cement in place on the reef for a new, sturdy boat connection. Well done! While we were making that dive, the Sea Dog ran another shore excursion over to North Exuma Land & Sea Park, complete with a hike, beach play, and sun! Our late afternoon dive was a shallow area known as Hammerhead Gulch, a collection of scattered coral heads surrounded by acres of eel grass – lots of small critters and color to feast the eyes on. Shirley joined us on this one and we got a little more pre-certification bottom time in for her. Back on board, Chef Kirk treated us to another culinary delight for dinner, and we wrapped the evening up with another night dive, right here on Hammerhead Gulch.

Brittany & Heather, celebrating a total of 22 pounds of weight loss this week!  Great job ladies!

Brittany & Heather, celebrating a total of 22 pounds of weight loss this week! Great job ladies!

After dinner, Brittany Ingram asks me how much weight do I think she’s lost this week? I laugh, and tell her this is a loaded question to ask a man to answer, so she goes ahead and tells me…..14 pounds! That’s 14 pounds less lead that she’s carrying on every single dive here, and looking so much better in the water, with improved trim, greater control and comfort, and reduced risk of injury in the event of an accidental loss of her ballast. Mom chimes in and says she’s down 8 pounds, and dad has dropped ten so far, and looking to raise that number before the end of he week. Even their son has dropped lead, and they are all gushing about how much better they feel, how much less air in their BCD’s to manage, and how they all can see how each of them has better attitude in the water. Truly amazing, and so wonderfully rewarding, to be able to share some simple observations with our divers and to see how they take it to heart, and make their own self-adjustments that they had never given any thought too before, even with nearly 100 logged dives each. Sadly, they’ve also completed a number of continuing education courses, and in none of these did their instructors take the time to help the divers grow and become more complete by sharing their observations and knowledge of simple physics…or wait, perhaps it’s the lack of knowledge that so many instructors suffer from, and the tunnel-vision of only thinking about the course they are teaching, and not of providing a greater benefit to the overall diver with every student they interact with. Sad, but a very true and common affliction the industry suffers from.

Day 15 Thursday 4/24 Great dive at Blacktip Wall to start the day, perhaps the nicest wall yet, with lots of deep cuts and swim-thru’s exiting on the face of the wall around 100 ft. deep. Viz was excellent, the corals healthy and colorful.. just missing one thing – some big pelagics! It’s funny how with such great conditions here that we see o few large open water fish on the deeper sites, and it’s not that they are fished out since most of these sites are within the marine reserve … but as Bruce Hornsby sang to us….”That’s just the way it is.”

"Mr. 400!"

“Mr. 400!”

Post-dive, several of us headed out for a short jaunt on the Sea Dog to try our hand at catching dinner for tonight. We hooked one really nice dolphin, 48 inches or so in length, but it threw the hook after a series of spectacular jumps, and we lost it. Our second dive was back on Blacktip Wall, and it was as spectacular as the first dive. Perfect way to work up an appetite for another great lunch prepared by Chef Kirk and company.

J Glo in sidemount rig, test diving his scooter

J Glo in sidemount rig, test diving his scooter

Our next dive is at a site called “Washing Machine” and for good reason – the incoming tidal current, which we are about to experience, causes such a rush of water through this quite narrow pass, which is comprised of a series of 40 ft. deep washouts, holes basically, on the bottom, one arranged right after the next. So as we drift in, the current catches us, throws us to the bottom of the hole, then pops us up almost to the surface, spinning us wildly, and then repeats the ride for the next hole. Pretty darn cool, although probably not a profile highly recommended by the folks at DAN, but a lot of fun none the less! We followed that with a leisurely drift dive for the next 40 minutes or so, until the mother ship magically appears to pick us up. Last late-afternoon dive of the week is at Lobster-No-Lobster Reef, and it’s a perfect lazy dive to cap the day. Shallow, clear, and colorful – sweet!

My personal favorite for the photo contest, but alas, was not the winning entry!

My personal favorite for the photo contest, but alas, was not the winning entry!


Tonight we capped off another great dinner with the week’s photo contest and the showing of the video that was produced by the boat crew this week. Really nicely done, everyone had at the very minimum their 15 seconds of fame and glory, and the whole presentation was quite entertaining to say the very least. There were a number of awards handed out, some recognition of certifications completed this week, and our own Mike Parz was awarded a pretty schnazzy certificate for logging his 400th dive on this trip – well done Mike! Needless to say, there’s a copy of the video going home to be shared at the next Indian Valley Divers Club meeting in two weeks!


Day 16 Friday 4/25 Another morning in paradise, and sadly, the trip is drawing to a close with only one more day on board before heading back to reality….wait a minute, this IS my reality! Oh well, at least it sounds sadder when I say it that way.  Hopefully you’re feeling my pain!

The viz was forever, sitting on the edge of the blue hole and getting ready to drop...deep!

The viz was forever, sitting on the edge of the blue hole and getting ready to drop…deep!

My Project Aware photo of the week, showing my personal haul of non-treasures from the bottom of the sea

My Project Aware photo of the week, showing my personal haul of non-treasures from the bottom of the sea

We get our final two dives in this morning, the first at one of the Bahamas famous blue holes, deep pits that just drop out of the bottom of the sea. The one we visited today measured about 100 ft. in diameter, and started at approx. 60 ft. deep. I can personally verify that the bottom of the hole was just over 200 ft. below the surface, and am thankful for that little dose of sweet narcosis to cap a spectacular week of diving.   Our second and final location was Periwinkle Reef, a shallow little site just full of life on a small scale, and Mike Parz and I spent the last 60 minutes of this week’s bottom time just enjoying the in’s and out’s of this little piece of paradise under the sea. From there, it was time to break the gear down and lay it out to dry as we enjoyed our last fine lunch on the ride back to port. Finally we had the Internet again, so everyone got a little busy checking in for their flights and touching base on their emails.

For dinner, the Ingram’s and Mike P joined Shirley and I at the Poop Deck restaurant on the harbor for one last great session of laughter and making plans for some new adventures in the future. This is perhaps the best part of trips like this, where a boatload of folks from around the world, who are, for the most part, total strangers just seven days ago, and here we are now swapping recipes and emails, and talking about the next times we’ll be seeing each other. That’s something that’s really hard to script, but it’s most certainly part of the magic that goes along with great group travel like we experience time and time again on our adventures around the globe.

Day 17 Saturday 4/26 Finally, as with all good things, we’ve come to our end. Our week included approx.. 250 miles of sailing up and down the length of the Exuma Islands, from Nassau over to Ship Channel Cay and down to Staniel Cay and back, twenty-five great dives, a bunch of new friendships formed, thousands of photos both under and above the sea, and a lifetime of great memories. We give our final high fives and hugs as the shuttle busses come and take us over to the airport to catch our flights home. One last goodbye to our home for the past week, and to the crew that made it such a memorable experience. Thank YOU everyone for another great trip, and we look forward to our next charter!


Into the Blackness…..Cooper River diving!

The world is full of diving opportunities and some are certainly more unique than others.  The Cooper River in South Carolina clearly fits the bill for one of the more unique ones.  Winding through the SC Low Country, this river offers divers an amazing venue to hunt for million-year old megaladon shark teeth, fossilized bones, pottery and Indian artifacts dating back 1,000 or more years, and they get to do this in consistently high-flowing currents and visibility ranging from zero to perhaps 4 ft at best, while navigating around massive sunken trees and other entanglement hazards, and enjoying chance underwater encounters with 5 ft long channel catfish, even bigger sturgeons, and the occasional alligator!  You just can’t get it like this at home!

Our operator for this adventure is Mark Johnson and Dive the Cooper, located in Moncks Corner, SC, right on the banks of the Cooper.  Mark has been diving this river and leading groups for years, and has a first hand knowledge of the best areas to visit, and the best ways to work with the challenges of the river conditions to maximize safety and ensure a great experience for the participants.

Our able crew for the week include Cooper River veterans and fossil-finders extraordinaire Ashley Cooper and Ryan DuBois, accompanied by Judy Mullen, Herb DuBois, myself, and Cooper River newbie Dave Olejnick.

Plans are to depart Tuesday evening, drive during the night, and start our diving Wednesday mid-day to catch the slack tides.  I give Dave O an estimated 10:00 pm departure time, and he arrives around 8:30 to see me in typical pre-trip fashion…..with nothing packed yet!  But we take care of that, fill a few last tanks, gather some dive gear, and pack up the car.  OK, so it’s 11:40 and we’re finally on the road for our ten-hour journey!  A mile down the road, going through my mental checklist, and I realize I forgot my sleeping bag.  I ask Dave if he’ll share his, and that’s when the line gets drawn in the proverbial sand….so much for the “buddy system”, and we turn around to grab my own sleeping bag.

Herb & Ryan also headed south, starting last evening with a rest break along the way, so they arrived fresh and ready to go.  Judy and Ashey drove up from Savannah, GA to join us on site and everyone pulled in at 11.  We unloaded the cars, set up our gear, and loaded it onto Mark’s 24 ft tri-toon (that’s three pontoon’s for us Yankees) deck boat.  It’s nicely set up with comfortable seating, ample deck space, and easy entry & exit points.  We head out to the river, going downstream, past old rice mills, to our first dive site, “Billy’s Bank”, a series of ledges starting at 15 ft and stepping down over a series a clay ledges until finally hitting 45 ft max in the center of the river.  There are huge swaths of gravel beds located here, and that’s where we are most likely to find the good stuff!

Mark sets up a downstream safety marker buoy, and then we drop back down-current and anchor.  The plan is to drop in, follow the anchor line down, get oriented on the bottom, and then work our way upstream, against the current, searching the gravel pits and clay bottom, and then drifting back onto the boat on the surface.  We gear up, and everyone splashes.  With the murkiness of the water, you lose sight of each diver as soon as they are about 3 ft under the surface.  The view is pretty much the same for the diver, with the only visual reference being the anchor line, as we follow it down and down, finally catching a glimpse of the bottom when you see the anchor.  You take a minute or two to get oriented, gets your lights adjusted, and drop down face first onto the bottom, staying negative and digging in with a screwdriver or trowel to hold yourself against the current.  Realistically, this is true solo diving, as the odds of staying together with your buddy are slim to none with the combination of conditions, visibility, and the task-loading of searching in the gravel for teeth.  An hour or so later, our divers pop up one by one, and drift back to the boat, smiling and with mesh bags full  of teeth, bones, old turtle shells, and more.

Dive two is similar, as we move less than a half mile down the river, and get another hour-long dive under our belts.  More good stuff added to our collections, more stories to share, and more laughs.  Dave O has decided to sit out the first day of diving, taking a wait-and-see approach to just how over-rated this alligator hazard was.  We’re thinking his wheels are turning for a dive or two tomorrow!

Back at the dock, it’s time to load the tanks into a couple of cars and we head over to John Cercopely’s place, Cooper River Dive Charters, for our fills.  He’s got a great operation located in his backyard, with an impressive compressor and gas storage system and a huge collection of artifacts he’s gathered from his hears in the river.  We salivate as we look and touch some of the huge 6-plus inch teeth he’s found, along with massive bones, mastodon teeth, whale vertebrae, and more.

Finally we’re off to dinner at Outback Steakhouse, and nearly three hours of laughing, joke-telling, stories, photo op’s and more.  One thing that is 100% consistent on any Indian Valley Scuba adventure is the fun and laughter that everyone enjoys.  Good times had by all, and we head back to bed, exhausted, with our bellies aching from the laughs, and we get some needed rest for tomorrow’s dives!

Manatee Madness in Crystal River!

Manatee Trip January 2013

Trip Report by Mairead Twohig

Instead of taking the easy way out and flying, my dad (JJ) and I decided to make heading to Crystal River, Fl a family vacation. We made quite a few stops along the way, mainly for gas, but one of the “learning experience” stops was at South of the Border. Which as we found out is not as exciting as all the billboards claim it to be, so a few pictures later we are on the road again. Hours later we find ourselves at our first stop, Orlando. We stayed there for two days roaming around Disney and the various resorts.

ManateeAfter a few days of rest and Mickey Mouse we headed west to Crystal River, with a pit stop at Daytona Speedway for a tour. Friday morning we made our way to the dive shop, not knowing what to expect. They tell me to get my gear a group is heading out on a manatee tour and I can dive into a small cave at King’s Bay. Captain Nick and I dove about 25-30 ft and explored a smaller cave, although I was having ear problems so it didn’t last long. On our way out we met a playful manatee which got lots of attention from both of us.

The next morning we headed to Rainbow River so that I could get a relaxing drift dive in. my dad got a few pictures of me before the boat left me to fend for myself. Besides running into a group that liked stirring up the sand, the dive was long and relaxing. Besides all the random pockets of non-vegetation I got to see a turtle. Since the day was still young my dad and I headed back to the dive shop just in time for another manatee tour. This time I got to just enjoy playing with manatees and I got loads of attention from a baby manatee. The baby sure did love my fins and camera. Captain Nick eventually yelled at me to head back into the spring which I grudgingly did. Just my luck there was only one manatee and the second it saw me it decided to plop its nose in the ground and fall asleep. So I headed back which the rest of the group also had worn out and back to shore we headed. Just in time to catch the end of the Manatee Festival. To much surprise there was only one table the sold manatee trinkets, the rest was homemade, business stuff or food.

Sunday morning we switched it up and instead of going to Blue Grotto or Devils Den, we met up with one of the dive shops instructors at a park about an hour away from Crystal River. Although I am already certified it was fun watching others take their certification test. The park is open to the public and the “watering hole” has a small cave in it. The two dives here were relaxing and fun getting to play with fish and dive into the small cave. Sadly the next day we headed home. Instead of making the long weekend just about manatees and scuba diving, my dad and I made it a week of fun.

The Jungle called…and I answered! Time for an African Adventure!

The earth is a vast and wonderful place, with so much to see and experience.  One of the challenges of my dual career-choice roles of running a dive center and an adventure travel company is the need to constantly seek out the best places to visit in every corner of the globe, on every continent.   Yes, it’s not an easy job, but it’s a burden I feel the need to bear for the sole benefit of the Indian Valley community of travelers. I thank each of you for feeling my pain!

The African continent is a diverse land of contrasts, from beautiful beaches, barren deserts, lush jungles, towering mountains, majestic waterfalls, and so much more.  Equally teeming with life, one could easily dedicate their life to exploring this vast land mass and barely scratch the surface. Enter Sonja Newlands, the founder of Africa Tours and Unashamed Travel, her two businesses that specialize in offering the very best expeditions that Africa and the surrounding region have to offer for discriminating travelers.  Over the past two years, Sonja and I have been hard at work developing a unique partnership designed to provide Africa Tour, and the destinations she represents, with a solid marketing presence in the Americas, while guaranteeing Indian Valley travelers the very best choices for adventure travel opportunities of every nature. The truest definition of a “Win-Win” situation is sure to result from our efforts.  My mission over the next couple of weeks will be to sample the best of the best in South Africa, and use that firsthand knowledge to help our travelers select the operators and destinations that maximize the adventure they seek, while optimizing the greatest value in terms of time, money and effort.

So our trip begins on a dark, stormy January day with a chill in the air, accented by overcast skies and periods of torrential rain.  Not a bad setting to put behind me, I say to myself,  as I put together the final touches of preparation for my visit to the Dark Continent.  As one might suspect, I have left trivial travel details, such as packing, to the last possible moment…I function so much better under stress.  So the alarm goes off, it’s six a.m., and time to get my procrastinating butt in gear for my 2:00 flight.  I check my lists, and start pulling two weeks worth of tropical clothes together.  Keeping in mind that there are a number of in-country flights planned, I have a two-bag, max 50 lbs each limit to respect.  That certainly rules out my luggage of choice, my Pelican cases.  For this adventure I opt for the Akona’s newest offerings, the  ‘Less than 10’ suitcases, complimented with a ‘Less than 7’ carry-on roller bag.  Yes, traveling light…something new for me, but I’ll give it a whirl…this time!

With bags packed and weighed, I bid my farewells to Pete and Niki at the shop, and then its hugs & wet kisses to my girls Isabelle & Ruby.  It’s uncanny how they know daddy is going away…I love my German Shepherds so much!  So all is good, as I ramble down the highway with plenty of time to spare….yes, another thing different for me!  This is looking like a great start to a great trip…right up until the moment my cell phone starts to ring and I see those dreaded words in my caller ID…Delta Airlines.  Man oh man, what can be happening now?  Well, remember all those dark clouds and stormy skies?  Seems that has caused my flight out of Philadelphia to Atlanta to be canceled due to the weather, but not to worry, I am “protected” on a USAir flight to Paris to connect me to something.  OK, I relax, and keep heading on down to the airport.  Wait….my phone rings again….seems that flight was canceled too…now I am heading to New York to connect to Amsterdam …. oh man…too much to compute, let me just get my truckster parked and deal with it at the counter.

I pull into SmartPark, my favorite off-site parking lot, and the shuttle van is waiting for me.  Mid-afternoon, and it’s nice and slow, so I’m the only soul in the van.  But wait…another car pulls into the lot, so the driver asks if I mind if we pick them up.  “Heck no”, I reply…I am already in limbo-land on my flights so no rush now.  We pull up behind the car, and a couple gets out with their skis.  Funny thing is though, we recognize each other immediately…why, it’s Mary & George Foering, members of our dive club!  What an amazingly small world it is!  We chat about diving and skiing all the way to the airport.  Seems they are heading to Deer Valley for the first time, and that happens to be one of my favorite Park City ski resorts, so I give them a few tips on places to eat, such as one of the Valaika family establishments, Shabu restaurant in downtown Park City!  Yes, my cousin Robert Valaika’s place…gotta keep it in the family!  We split at the airport with them heading west and me going east, with a date to meet again next month at the Indian Valley Divers club meeting.

Strolling up to the ticket counter, I search for a familiar face there, and lo and behold, who’s working today but my long-time Delta friend Kim Kates-McGrory. Kim & I go back probably 20 years of flying Delta out of Philadelphia…it is always good to have friends and great relationships in business!  No better hands would I like to find myself in, especially after all those troubling phone calls on my way to the airport.  As one might imagine, my travel issue is a bit complicated, so the line forms behind me as Kim devotes no less than 45 minutes to getting me re-routed on my flight.  At times she is on one phone, and I am holding the other for her, as we’re working with different agents trying to salvage my travel plans for the day.  Finally she manages to work it out, with a “fingers-crossed” route to Atlanta in hopes of catching that trans-Atlantic flight.  I thank you immensely, and head up through security and to the gate.

Well the weather gods are not done with me yet, and my flight is indeed delayed.  By the time we board, and wait on the taxiway, it is a lost cause, and there is no way I am making my Atlanta flight.  The official word greets me when I arrive there, as they hand me my hotel voucher and dinner ticket for the night.  Geesh….what a start to this adventure!  My bags are safely locked up for the night, so I jump into the hotel shuttle and enjoy an evening in ‘Hotlanta’ on Delta’s dime before calling it a night.  We’ll continue this journey in the morning.

Day Two – Still in America but moving in the right direction! 

Thursday morning dawns to another sadly gray day, but the good news is that I am 660 miles closer to my destination!  Back to the airport, I throw myself on the mercy of Rosie and Tyrone, two of Delta’s finest working the Atlanta ticket counter.  I share my tale of woe, my “lost day” of travel due to the airline’s flight cancellation, and they pick up the phone and talk some airline magic to the folks on the other end.  They hand me my boarding pass on today’s oversold flight, and send me off to the security line with a ‘wink’.  Amazingly the airline gods smile once again, and the gate greets me with a nice single-digit row number to ease the pain of this seventeen-hour flight.  Thank you!

I send an email to Sonja to confirm my new flight info, and she has already taken care of moving my South African Airlines flight back a day, along with adjusting the start of our itinerary.  She is truly a professional, and her presence in the local market shines through brightly.

I arrive in Johannesburg, clear immigration, collect my luggage, and pass through customs without a glitch.  Stop at a currency trader, and change some US $ into South African Rands, aka ZAR (the Z coming from the Dutch / Afrikaner spelling of ‘South’, not the ‘English’ version.  Exchange rate is about 9 Rands to a Dollar, so a Rand comes in at about 11 cents each.

I head over to the South African Airways counter to check in for my domestic flight, and of course, in spite of me packing light, I am still over the limit, so it costs me R250 ($28) for my second checked bag..geeesh!

Now folks have often heard me speak of the value of brand loyalty, and especially how it applies to air travel.  Well here is a perfect example – not only do I get banged for my bag, but my seat assignment is the absolute last row in the plane, a non-recliner up against the lavatory bulkhead.  Talk about a night & day difference from last flight to this one!   Thank goodness it is only two hours so all things considered I’ll just have to suck it up and endure.

The pilot announcing the preparation for landing in Cape Town doesn’t come a minute too soon, and we touch down.  Collect the bags once again, and now into the throng of greeters at the airport with the hopes of finding my driver there.  It’s only a few minutes of scanning the crowd before I make eye contact with Gary Flynn, my local expert and tour guide for the first portion of the journey.

We load up the bags and head 50 km to Simons Town, a quaint village halfway down the peninsula from Cape Town to Cape of Good Hope. Gary is a wealth of local and national knowledge, as well as an avid diver and conservationist, so the banter never stops as we make our way along.

We pull up the Quayside Hotel, located right on the harbor in Simons Town.  Really nice cute 5-star hotel with spacious rooms and a helpful staff to get me situated for my first night in-country.  It’s late to right to bed to rest up for a busy day tomorrow.

Day Three – Simons Town, Cape of Good Horn, transit to Cape Town

Up early and ready to go, my first appointment of the day is with my friends at Shark Explorers, one of the top operators for Shark Diving in SA, and specializing in Great Whites.  The owners, Morne Hardenberg, has been diving with sharks and great whites in particular since 1999.  His lovely wife is actively involved in on-going research with a number of international organizations dedicated to learning more about this mysterious apex predator that pre-dates man by a million years. He has his right-hand man Brocq pick me up at the hotel and take me around for the morning, onto the boats, checking out the shark cage, and glimpsing into the wonderful research they have gained during their experiences in the water with our big grey friends.  Amazing small world story:  Brocq attended boarding school in Lawrenceville, NJ, about 25 miles from Harleysville, and knew the area well.  Back to Shark Explorers, it is utterly amazing what they have discovered so far, and how much more there is to learn about these animals.  Sadly, we have 30 km/ hour winds coming in from the southeast, across a thousand mile of open ocean, so the seas are not looking good for getting out today.  It is whitecap city everywhere you look, and the long run hour to the best great white grounds would be impossible to endure.  So after a bit of a cruise around the harbor, I bid them farewell for now and meet up with Gary from last night for the rest of the day.

Our mission today is to tour southward, to the end of the peninsula that is known as the Cape Floral Kingdom.  Consisting of a ridge of mountain peeks starting in Cape Town, end runs to the southernmost point of the African Continent, the Cape of Good Hope.  We start at the dive center, and head back to the harbor area.  We pass the South African Naval Museum and the largest naval facility in the country, home to the biggest part of the SA Fleet.  Pretty neat to see a major naval facility completely surrounded by recreational and commercial docks and boats, a little less security paranoia here than back in America for sure.  After passing that, we pull down a small road and park for our walk Boulders National Park, the home of a huge population of South African Penguins.  This is one of the five major species of penguin, and like their cousins in the Galapagos, the only ones that are not found in Antartica.  These guys are great, hanging out right alongside us, not bothered by the tourists and the clicks of the cameras.  They roost on the rocks and beach, and swim playfully in the kelp beds….assuming, of course, that there are no sharks awaiting them!

OK, Penguin experience satisfied, we move further south, along the shore line of False Bay, a huge, 30-mile wide expanse of water that has only one outlet to the sea, alongside Cape Point directly ahead of us.  With the summer winds prevailing from the Southeast, the warm water is trapped in the bay, and it is a full 20 or so degrees warmer than the ocean just outside.  This of course brings a lot of sea life, and the admirers of sea life, such as big predators, into the bay, making for quite the viewing opportunity for watching dinner being served. All along the way we can observe frenzies of feeding activity in the water, with diving birds, leaping fish, and lots of splashing, indicating that someone out there is not having a good day at all!

As we pass out of Simons Town, I start noticing a lot of signs warning of baboons, and of course, the inquisitive mind needs to know.  Well it seems that the baboons have adapted very well to the presence of humans, and in a reverse illegal immigration sort of way, the nice people moved into the bad neighborhoods, so to speak.  The baboons, with males weighing a few hundred pounds and taller than me, equipped with sharp claws and huge teeth, are not so easy to deal with.  They often attack in packs, swooping down on outside and inside restaurants, entering homes, and doing pretty much anything they want.  In fact, we spotted some ostriches alongside the road, and I had Gary pull over so I could get out and take some photos.  While I’m standing there with the birds a car pulls up, and the family jumps out to get some pictures too.  I mention to them that they might want to close the windows and lock the doors, but who are they to listen to this gringo?  So, I have my ostrich pics, and I walk over to their car, and start taking pictures of the baboon in the back seat ripping apart the bags and purses…the family screams hysterically seeing what I am taking pictures of, and I give dad a big “thumbs up” for taking my advice..maybe next time, eh?

Our next stop is a little impromptu meeting with Dr. Larry Hutchings, a marine biologist and Professor of Marine Studies at Cape Town University.  He’s out today searching the surface of the bay for the sign of Yellowtail, the fish we call Amberjack.  He’s got a research study going on with the species, so we chat a bit about the habits they exhibit here and what we see in the US waters.  It’s interesting to note that the parasitic worm that infests the tail half of most of the ones we catch is non-existent here, and that’s a good thing.  Of course they have their own army of parasites, so we swap parasite stories for a while.  Our vantage point is on a bluff overlooking not only the bay, but a small village of little vacation homes built in a cove a few hundred feet below us, right on the water.  I ask about them, and especially the fact that I see no vehicles and no roads there at all, and he proudly shares that one of them is his and has been in his family since the 50’s.  It was a one room cabin when it started, and over the years, he has added several rooms and a full kitchen to the home.  When I ask about the lack of vehicles, he says that is the way the owners want it, and there are literally no access roads to the village; 100% of the construction materials, food, and everything else is hand carried down from the place we are standing.  Wow is all I can think – what a lifestyle choice!

We pass along further south, and finally reach Table Mountain Nation Park, which encompasses the entire southern half of the peninsula  and is the home of the Cape of Good Hope and the Cape Point lighthouse.  A total of 15,000 acres of land is inside the park, and it’s the home of more than 1,500 floral species – pretty intense diversity.  As we park and prepare to get out and walk a bit, Gary points out that in addition to all those plants, there are three critters here I should pay mind to:  Mole Snakes, Puff Adders, and Cape Cobras.  Seems all these plants make some good food sources for African White Striped Mice, and birds too, so it’s pretty prime hunting grounds for snakes too!  While the mole snake reaches a length of 12 feet, it is a constrictor, and it’s bite is not dangerous.  The Adder and Cobra though are pretty deadly, and the Adder is also not fearful of humans, so as you walk along, it doesn’t slither away like a good snake should, but sits and waits for you to get within range.  Death occurs within hours unless you receive prompt medical treatment and ant-serums, but the tissue damage is so extensive that the bitten area, usually an arm or leg, must be amputated.  Well, that brings up a lot of memories from my Hellfire Coral interaction in Truk Lagoon a year or so ago!  Yikes….let’s watch for the snakes!

Well the fact that you are reading this suggests that I never lost focus on my guides warning words, and that our stroll through the brush was without incident. Todays score, at least so far: Dave 1, African Poisonous Snakes 0.  We’ll try to keep it that way for the next 10 days!

In spite of the constant fear of a painful death or at a minimum loss of an appendage, I must admit that the park was beautiful, a rugged, yet lush landscape filled with lots of life no so obvious at first blush, but thanks to the learned eye of my guide Gary, he is able to point out so much to me.  Good call having him along!

We head from there back along the road to the end of the peninsula, and the Cape of Good Hope.  This is the southernmost point of the African Continent, and also where the waters of the Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean mix.  In addition to the turbulence of the seas coming together, there are nearly always strong winds, plenty of fog, and many submerged rocks, which help maintain this areas recognition as one of the most historically dangerous sailing passages known worldwide.  There are actually two points jutting out next to each other , the second being Cape Point, and that is where in 1860 they erected a lighthouse at the top to help sailors avoid catastrophe on the rocks below.  Well, the early Einstein’s neglected that fog thing I mentioned, and so for the 40 years of it’s working life, ships continued to crash with regularity in the area, mainly because no one was looking 750 ft up into the clouds for a navigation marker.  So around 1900 they finally erected another lighthouse, down along the waters edge, well below the clouds and fog, and finally, they succeeded in their mission, and the local shipwrecking business came to an end.  Today, thankfully, was clear and bright, and the view from the lighthouse was pretty spectacular.

Located right on the point, actually under the parking area, was a great restaurant called Two Oceans.  Now usually when you have some tourist destination, the first two mandatory improvements are rest rooms and some crappy restaurant serving predictably mediocre fare.  Well that is hardly the case here, these folks did it right!  Our lunch is superb, selected a fine menu which included a huge selection of fresh sushi delights to accommodate the significant number of Asian tourists that visit the area.  Well done!

Bellies full, we start heading north, cutting across the point to the Atlantic Coast.  Our first stop along the rocky coast is to observe local lobstermen working to catch delicious South African Rock Lobsters in the kelp.  They are working in about 4 to 6 feet of water, using a long pole onto which they tie a piece of bait to a string, and dangle it in the water.  Lobsters come out of hiding to sample the bait, and once they decide it is indeed tasty, they latch on, and the fisherman slowly raises the pole, with the lobster hanging on, until he can maneuver a long net into position behind & below the lobster, who realizes this was not a free lunch and drops off the bait, ideally into the carefully positioned net.  Pretty interesting technique, and even more interesting is how many lobsters live in the relatively shallow waters under the kelp, and how active they are during the day – a bit different that what we experience at home.

Continuing up the coast, we pass through the village of Scarborough, which holds the infamous title of the area with the greatest number of baboon home invasions.  You gotta be famous for something, but man, couldn’t they choose something better?  As we travel further along, Gary points out some areas where divers or surfers have suffered Great White attacks over the past years….this shark thing is pretty serious here!  Many of the beaches with good surfing waves have, in addition to the lifeguard, a Shark Spotter on a high tower or piece of ground, who is constantly scanning the water looking for sharks.  Today, however, the risk is quite low, as the water is a clear blue with great visibility, and that reduces the risks of sharks accidently attacking a human through a case of mistaken identity due to low viz. They have a flag system for warning, and today the Green ‘Shark’ flag is flying, indicating low risk. Point taken:  only frolic in the clear water in Africa!

We pass along the beautiful rugged coast heading northward, dotted with rocks & kelp, mixed in with a number of pristine white sand beaches.  We pause for a quick hike down a trail to a beautiful viewing area high on a rocky cliff over the ocean, and Gary points out that last November, in the exact spot I am standing, a gust of wind blew a tourist right over the railing to his death below on the rocks.  I think I have enough photos from here thanks, let’s head back to the van!

As we begin to approach Cape Town, we start to pass through some obvious hardscrabble housing developments, and Gary enlightens me about some of the pre-apartheid practices of the South African government, namely, forced relocation.  This land is made up of a number of diverse ethnic groups, and unlike the overly-politically correct US, here they make no bones about it.  There are Blacks, the native people of South Africa, Coloureds, who are mainly the descendants of slaves imported from other lands, and the Whites.  And the Whites, who only make up 7% of the population, are further divided into Afrikaners, with Dutch roots, and the English, with ties back to the UK.  Every group, except of course the Blacks, can be traced back in history to different times of occupation and exploitation, from the Dutch East India Trading Company arriving in the early 1600’s, to the British West Indies period, through the Anglo-Boer wars over gold and minerals, and finally to where they are today.

But during the mid 1900’s the Afrikan government took up the practice of racially segregated housing, which resulted in massive forced relocation projects.  We are driving through them now, acres and acres of cheap government housing units, filled with economically challenged people, and rife with crime.  There are more electric fences in South Africa than I have ever seen anywhere, all erected with the idea of keeping those with even less than you out. South Africa also does not have a welfare system, so ‘work to eat’ is the order of the day.

A little further along, we see the next phase, where, after the end of apartheid, formerly relocated persons could apply for what essentially amounted to a free home provided by the government. These “Mandela Palaces” as they are mockingly referred to, are very simple one and two room units, that require the prospective owner to occupy for seven years, at which time title will be passed down to them.  Although nothing to shout about, it is certainly a step up from the projects.

Finally we arrive in Cape Town, where I check in to the Southern Sun Waterfront hotel for the night.  Located right in the downtown, district, it’s a first class property very conveniently located near the V&A Waterfront district, a vibrant and exciting area of restaurants, shops, nightlife and attractions right on the water.

Day Four –  Cape Town area, & transit to Durbin

Morning comes and I head down to breakfast to find myself breaking bread with the members of the New Zealand National Cricket Team, in town for a match.  Pretty animated bunch for sure, and they certainly start my day off with a bit of laughter.  Gary arrives, and we’re off for another day of touring before I have to head to the airport again.

We start with a drive up Table Mountain, the towering u-shaped land mass that forms the City Bowl, a natural low-lying area which contains all of Cape Town.  We drive as far as we can, and then take a cable car up to the very top to enjoy some phenomenal views of the city and surrounding areas.  The mountain got it’s name from it’s shape, which includes a large flat top.  The warm, humid air coming in from the sea forms dense clouds as it rises up the face of the mountain, but the prevailing wind from the back side traps the cloud there, where it lies like a table cloth, draping over the edges of the mountain top – very unique formation, and we’re treated to quite a view today. A little local tradition is the monthly “Moon Walk”, during the first phases of the full moon thousands of folks hike up the mountain, toting refreshments, and enjoy a spectacular view of the sun setting to the west while the moon rises in the east, both in full view at the same time.  A few more refreshments, and I am sure they see all sorts of other things up there too!

From there, we head down and then back up to Lions Head mountain, right on the coast where the City Bowl ends at the sea.  It’s easy to see why the Dutch came and built a port here in this natural harbor, the first European development in the southern African continent. We also get a commanding view of Robben Island, commonly referred to as the Alcatraz of Africa.  Situated four miles offshore, this island is a former political prison which housed Nelson Mandela for 19 years.  Today it’s a tourist attraction, with ferry shuttles running people out all day long.  From our position we are also overlooking Cape Town Stadium, which, with it’s round shape and round hole in the roof, is jokingly referred to as the largest toilet seat in Africa.  Built for the 2010 World Cup soccer championships, it evidently is the wrong size to use for anything else, and the government is looking to tear it down and rebuild a more useful stadium.  Way to think ahead on that one, eh?

Another amazingly small world story:  As I’m taking photos of the stadium, a couple walks up with the same idea.  We start to chat, and they are Afrikaners from the Johannesburg area, that come down to Cape Town annually for a weekend vacation. They ask my origin, and I tell them, and that starts a whoe new discussion – they are avid travelers to the US, having visited Key West, San Diego, San Francisco (including Alcatraz), the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Niagara Falls, and of course, Disney World. We end up yacking for another thirty minutes on the side of the road, sharing travel stories and favorite places – pretty cool!

Enough of the high-level sightseeing, we head down into the city for some up close and personal sights.  Our first stop is one of the oldest sections of the city, with colorful houses, cobblestone streets, and a few mosques.  The neighborhood of the original Dutch inhabitants, they abandoned it when the British took over in 1800, and when they left, their former slaves took over. Most of the slaves had been imported from Malaysia, hence the neighborhood is known as Malay Town.  It has a strong community culture and there are no homes for sale, in fact, if a family is having difficulty with making ends meet, the community gets together and works out a financing plan to help them get back on their feet, rather than suffering the risk of the home being sold to someone from “outside”.  The second half of the Malay Quarters is Cape Town’s gay district.  Like San Francisco was to the US, Cape Town has for years had a strong gay ( I suppose we should use today’s term LGBT) community.

Further downtown, we pass by the Castle of Good Hope, the 1st European building constructed in SA.  Built in the 1670’s to defend the vital port, it was located immediately on the shore line, with it’s cannons pointing seaward.  Of course, the Dutch being who they are, reclaimed much of the land along the sea, and the fort ended up being about a half mile inland by the time they were done.    Across the street from the fort is the old City Hall, an imposing structure facing the city square.  In 1990, immediately upon release from prison, Nelson Mandela was brought here and gave his famous Freedom Speech from the second floor balcony to throngs of cheering black supporters in the square.  It was the first time many of the whites had ever seen such a gathering, as until that point it was illegal for more than ten of them to gather in a group.  My, how far they’ve come!

After there we drove through infamous District Six, the former neighborhood of more than 60,000 blacks who were forced into relocation in the 60’s.  The government designated this area to be an all-white neighborhood, but no developers would touch the project out of concern of land title claims from the former residents. Most of the former residents were in fact renters or squatters, and by the late 90’s many had passed away so when the government offered a “Mandela Palace” to anyone who could prove former ownership, few were able to take them up on their offer. Today, most of the area still stands as barren blocks of prime downtown real estate, undeveloped.

Located adjacent to District Six was a building that looked like it had been attacked, and Gary confirmed it, that it was the Zimbabwe Embassy, attacked and torched by it’s own people over their government’s failure to issue paperwork and permits for them to work and live in SA. The Zimbabwe president/dictator, Mugabe, has managed to run that country through massive inflation, to the point where one US dollar = one trillion Zimbabwe dollars.  Improvements have come slowly to that country, but one of the first steps was to become the first African nation to adopt the US dollar as their official currency.  Needless to say, I am not sure why, but so many peoples around the world believe violence will cure their ills.  Today, all we have to show here is a deserted embassy here, and guess what… permits or paperwork. Nice job!

From there we toured the beautiful Company Gardens, originally constructed by the Dutch East Indies Trading Company to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for its schooners sailing back and forth between the far east and Holland.  Today it’s been converted into a park and open air botanical garden.

But that garden was just a tease, as our next stop is the famous Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, a 60,000 acre site just outside the city.  Established in 1913 to conserve and promote the indigenous flora of southern Africa, today it is recognized as one of the greatest botanical gardens in the world. Truly world class, it’s a ‘must see’ for anyone visiting the area.

Finally it’s time to say goodbye to Gary as he drops me off at the Cape Town Airport for my flight to Durban, and I head two hours towards the other side of SA.  Here I am greeted by Cheryl, another tour operator specializing in the western region of SA, and she is another bundle of energy and local knowledge.  Her father was a conservation officer who dedicated his life to working to preserve and restore the animal population in the national reserves, and his love of the land and knowledge of the native people were not lost on his daughter.

As we pass along the coast, the land changes with the resources and agricultural usage.  Initially we pass through acres upon acres of sugar cane, by far the largest crop in this region. This cash crop was brought in from Australia in 1848, and was originally harvested by hand.  However, the British farmers found that money was not a big incentive for the tribal Zulu’s to work for, as their eco-social structure was based largely on barter within the community.  So with crops going rotten in the field, the English turned to another resource, and in 1861 started importing Indians as contract workers, who typically had a five year period of servitude as a payback requirement to cover their ship’s passage from home.

As we passed a little further up the coast, passing through Mtunzini in Zululand, the farming starts to change to stands of eucalyptus trees, also imported from Australia. The primary purpose being to take advantage of the ideal growing conditions to produce pulpwood for the growing paper industry.  Much of the land we are passing through now is occupied by descendants of John Dunn, an English settler who arrived in the 1870’s and befriended Zulu King Cetchwayo, and ultimately turned his attention to the Zulu ladies, taking 49 wives, and fathering 117 ‘coloured’ children.  A very busy man indeed!

Most of the Zulu’s live in small family housing camps, with a number of circular huts forming the perimeter with fencing in between to protect the camp from the intrusion of trespassers or wild game.  In the center of the circle, a wooden pen knows as a kraal would be constructed to house the cattle at night to protect them, as they were, and still are, the principal measurement of wealth in the Zulu culture.  And within the kraal, would be an underground pit, full of corn and grain, to sustain the family in the event of an attack, or fire, or some other loss. With the grandparents, parents, children and maybe the next generation occupying the various huts, the family was pretty well self-contained and did not need much if anything from the outside world.  Even today, in many of the families, only one or two members work outside, and bring currency into the family, for fuel, or an automobile, or some other need that is outside the general realm of barter.

Speaking of cows, they are everywhere here.  There are no fences, so the cattle roam freely during the day to graze and are brought back into the kraal each night.  A good cow is worth about 12,000 Rand ($1,500) so a wealthy family might have 20 or so head in their herd.  As one might imagine, with the cows representing wealth, the only time they are slaughtered is to celebrate a wedding or a funeral.  The rest of the time, it’s good to be a cow in South Africa!

Now of course I know you’re wondering, with all these “free-range” cows running around, how on earth does everyone figure out whose cow is whose?  Amazingly, the Zulu language has over 200 words to describe the different attributes of coes, like color, spots, identifying marks, etc.  These folks are one step ahead of the game here, although I did suggest to a couple of the guys that numbered ear tags like we use in the states would sure simplify things.   Watch for that to be implemented soon….NOT!

Continuing further along the coast we pass Richards Bay, the second busiest port in SA and a major industrial center.  It is surrounded by huge sand dunes left over from 60 million years ago when the sea level was 150 ft higher, and they are loaded with titanium.  A major local controversy is how to mine the titanium without creating a need to restore the dunes at the same time…that sounds like a bit of a challenge indeed.

We also pass a few mountains to our left, inshore a bit.  Zulu tradition requires that when a person dies, they must be buried at a higher elevation than where they lived, as it would be an insult for them to spend an eternity at a lower place than they occupied in life.  That certainly rules out any cemetery in the valley for sure.  In addition, Zulu kings and chiefs are buried in a seated position, with a cowhide around their shoulders to ensure they return in the spirit form.  If they are buried laying down, then they will sleep forever.  So many rules!!

And of course, with all this time in the car, we chat about a range of topics, including what Cheryl’s business, Zulu Destinations, specializes in.  It turns out they offer a wide range on domestic travel options, but also is unique in that on the international side, it serves as a overseas employment placement agency, and an incoming supplier of tours for schools and mission groups.   For the past 8 years, her placement business has specialized in obtaining work visas and providing South African workers for a number of traveling carnivals across the US.  And I ask her about the school group side, and she tells me a couple of  her biggest clients are Villanova University’s School of Nursing, and Malvern Prep High School.  Small world, I tell her – both those schools are located within 20 miles of our home in Harleysville!

Cheryl drove me to Umkomaas, in Kwazulu Natal, located on the coast of the Indian Ocean.  Lana, the manager of Ocean Park Guest House, greeted us and showed me around her property which would be my base for the next two days. A four star classically appointed oasis of privacy and peace with private balconies, a pool, and tranquil gardens, located just two blocks from the ocean. Complete with spacious rooms and all the comforts one could want, including a great personable staff who couldn’t do enough to accommodate you, I knew I’d be more than comfortable here. I bid Cheryl a good night and retired for the evening.

Day Five –  Aliwal Shoals

It’s 7:00 and here to wish me a good morning is Ferdi Oosthurzen, the owner of Blue Vision Dive Center.  We loaded up my gear and headed over to his place, just a couple of blocks away, where I have the pleasure of meeting his mum Carol, DM Jason, Captain Clark, and the rest of his staff.  I also meet the three other guests who I’ll be diving with, and here’s another chapter in the ‘Amazingly Small World’ story.  Emma and Daniel are from New York City, and have been over touring the area, hiking, diving in Mozambique, and sightseeing.  They saw my IVS t-shirt and immediately said “Aren’t you guys at Dutch Springs a lot?” Ten thousand miles from home, alone, and I find myself diving with some of the same folks I dive with at home – amazing.  The other diver is a young lady from Holland who is here attending Cape Town University and working on her PhD in Property Law.

Blue Vision specializes in diving along the Aliwal Shoals, a huge undersea mount formed of solidified sand that was the original beach in the area, during the last ice age.  When the ice melted and the seas rose, this area was submerged to a depth of approx. 100 ft, and the shoals rise to within 15 ft of the surface.  They operate three 8 meter Zodiac RIB’s with dual outboard engines, which they trailer down from the dive center to launch in the mouth of the river.  We pile in the Land Rover, and pull the boat behind us to the launch point.  Once in water, we clamber aboard, don our lifejackets (yes, everyone does, including the captain) and turn to the challenge of launching ourselves through the violent surf, churning chocolate brown as the muddy river water mixes with the sea.  The river water here carrying the soil down from the mountains makes the Cooper River that we dive in South Carolina look like a swimming pool – you couldn’t see a crocodile or bull shark here if your life depended on it, and frankly, it might! So with our feet firmly secured under the foothold straps, and hands holding onto the lines, it’s a bit of an adrenalin rush as we pound out through the waves, with Captain Clark expertly twisting and maneuvering the boat as he seeks the tiny areas of flat water between waves that the ocean offers us. Needless to say, we are thoroughly soaked by the time the water has become blue and we’ve cleared the surf zone, but what a great ride it has been!

The wind has been a bit stronger than normal today, so it’s 4 to 6 ft seas all the way out, with occasional 8 to 10 footers thrown in for an extra thrill.  Not a ride for the faint of heart, that’s for sure, but our group is loving it.  About 5 km out to sea, we come upon the shoals, and Ferdi briefs us on the dive plan.  Nearly all diving here is drift dives, with the DM towing a marker buoy for the boat to follow.  3-2-1-Go! and we roll backwards into the sea, gathering for a moment on the surface then dropping down to 100 ft to begin our multi-level drift.  Our first site is known as Cathedral, named for the huge arch swim through in to a large bowl area. We continue along the edge of the shoal, poking in to the numerous crevices and passageways, spotting lobster, huge stingrays, moray eels, Nudibranchs, and a new fish for me, Pineapple Fish, little round balls no more than an inch or two long, usually hidden quite well in the safety of an overhang.  We’re greeted with a huge turtle as we near the end of our first dive, and spot a few sharks checking us out from a safe distance, as we surface and crawl back into the boat for a bit of surface interval.  Dive two was similar, with us enjoying a shallower profile along the upper section of the shoals, before it was time to head back to shore, and enjoy another run in through the surf.

Gear rinsed and hung, I headed back to clean up and then Ferdi took me out to lunch at Croc World, a local reserve / zoo / restaurant combination, where we enjoyed a tour of the wildlife and a great meal overlooking the ocean while chatting about the events of the day.   Later that evening I walked down to Sebastian’s, a local eatery with a great deck and good food.  Really nice folks there, and I got to chat with a number of locals to help round out my knowledge of the area.

Day Six –  Tiger Sharks & transit to Sodwana Bay

Next morning and it was time for an especially thrilling dive, Tiger Shark diving without a cage!  I met Lloyd, our dive leader for the day, who has spent the last 14 years specializing in working with the big tigers and filming them for organizations such as National Geographic, the BBC, and Animal Planet. He gives us a good briefing on what to expect, the risks involved, and how we’re going to execute the dive.  He warns us that we don’t want to make his “Worst Of” footage which he has accumulated over the years, mainly provided by those who fail to pay attention to the briefing details.

We launch again, and motor out about 6 km to the area where he has established a consistent feeding routine and is know to be loaded with sharks.  We’ve got two chum buckets, one large closed container punched through with holes in it’s sides to serve as a lure, and then the second, actually a washing machine tub, full or sardines and anchovies, with a lid that Lloyd can open and reach in pull out bait during the dive.  We float the first one to start the scent trail, and amazingly, it is not in the water one minute before the first Oceanic Black Tips start showing up right next to the boat.  Most are in the 6 ft size range, they are eager to get the show started.  We give it about an hour in the water, and then it starts……our marker bouy starts running away at a good clip, and we know that a tiger is sampling the chum container.  The larger container with the bait is now lowered in, and it’s time for the divers to enter the water, which by now has probably 40 black tips circling the boat, fins cutting the surface and criss-crossing back and forth looking for whatever morsels they might come across.  We back-roll in, and the splashes draw an immediate investigation from the sharks, who are right up on us to see what might have just fallen in the water. OK, get the breathing back under control, it’s time to submerge into this ball of sharks and thousands of other fish attracted to the bait.  We hang at about 25 ft, and witness some major feeding activity with every species involved.  The smaller jacks are able to penetrate the tub, and as they push the boat out, the jacks and trevally slam in for the bigger chunks, competing with the sharks and remoras. Suddenly, Lloyd rattles his noisemaker, and I look down to see a 12 ft tiger shark coming right under me, not at all disturbed by us or all the other activity in the water, just knowing there is a meal, or at least an appetizer, to be had here.  Soon she’s joined by another female tiger, nearly as long, and the two of them clear a path through the biomass as they seek out the bait that Lloyd has scattered in the water.  They are at least 3 ft across at the head, just huge animals, and as they approach I run through Lloyd’s Do’s & Don’ts list from the briefing.  If all else fails, he said, place your hand squarely and firmly on the top of their head and push them downward as you push yourself upward to maximize the distance between your soft parts and the pointier parts of the shark.  It turns out I need to practice this a few times during the dive, as the tigers are pretty curious about checking out any visitors to their world.  The larger of the two decides she has had enough, and then thrusts her lower jaw out, and swallows the entire chum bucket.  It’s secured to the rest of the rig by ¼” braided stainless steel cable, so she struggles to separate it from the line, twisting and turning with clear intent that she has laid claim on her breakfast.  Finally, frustrated, she spits it out, and continues to bang it with her snout, cause clouds of chum to come out each time.  Satisfied she has given up on the big meal, we start to ascend but as we do we see her coming back to the drum.  We pop to the surface and Lloyd shouts out to the captain to pull the drums back on board, but too late, she has it and then, like in the movie Jaws, we watch it start to race away before it submerges below the surface.

We climb back on board, and I ask Lloyd how often this happens, and he answers “Never – first time I ever saw this.”  Well I love to be on the cutting edge of things so here’s an extra thrill for the day!

Back at Blue Vision Dive Center it’s time to bid farewell to some great new friends and there to meet me is Cheryl again.  She’ll be taking me now about five hours up the coast, to my next stop near the Mozambique border.  I noted earlier what an expert she was in African history and culture, and this overland journey was a treat in learning so much about this beautiful land and its peoples.  As we passed northward from Umkomaas, we travel along the coast, within site of the ocean nearly the entire trip.

We finally arrive in Sodwana Bay, home of the Sodwana Bay Lodge and Sodwana Bay Scuba Center. Here we’ll have an opportunity for diving some of South Africa’s hard coral reefs, which flourish in this area with the warm southward currents flowing from the upper Indian Ocean.  I check in to my traditional thatch roof hut, and enjoy a great dinner at the restaurant.  On the screen I recognize some of the faces, and realize it’s the NZ cricket team being interviewed during their game against South Africa – pretty cool!

Day Seven –  Sodwana Bay Diving & More!

In the morning I meet Ben Jones, the owner of the dive center, and he shows me around the facility and explains the operation.  They have four zodiac inflatables, that they launch directly from the beach into Sodwana Bay.  The launch site is a protected area so although you are launching directly into the surf, it’s usually manageable, as evidenced by the fact that they only had four days in 2012 that they could not launch.  Their shuttle takes me and my gear down to the beach, located about 5 km up the road, where I meet the rest of the staff and my DM for the morning, Dennis.

I have had the opportunity to do quite a bit of traveling and diving around the world, but I must admit the Sodwana Bay staff was oneof the most personable and helpful groups I have ever had the chance to work with.  Every instructor, DM, gear handler, driver and boat handler, made immediate eye contact, introduced themselves, and just made everyone feel right at home in their midst.  My hats off to Ben and his team for having such a great team to work with his clients!

SBLDC has a permanent structure on the beach to provide a shaded area to gear up, and we set up for a 1-tank dive.  Gear handlers then took our equipment down to the boat, and Dennis gave us a thorough briefing.  We walked across the beach to the boat, sitting on the sand just above the waves.  The divers get alongside the boat, and a farm tractor pushes the boat into the surf.  We walk the boat through the breaking waves, the captain jumps in and fires up the engines, then the divers climb aboard, ladies first, of course!  A short zip through the breaking waves and we are at our destination in under five minutes time.  On the way we are greeted by a manta ray surfacing to check us out.

The captain maneuvers us over the drop zone, and it’s 3-2-1-go! as we splash backwards into the sea.  The reef is about 100 ft deep here, and the visibility is probably close to 200 ft, so it’s no problem for the group to descend down in the 84 degree water to begin our dive.  W gather on the bottom, and Dennis slowly leads us across the reef, enjoying a nice multi-level dive and taking in the critters that inhabit the reef.  All the usual critters, plus some great nudi’s and another first, Ribbon Eels.  The dive ends too quickly as this is really a pretty area, and we climb back aboard and head in.  The boat approaches the beach at high speed, we hold on, and end up shooting completely clear of the water by the time we come to a stop.  Well done indeed!

Surface interval is enjoyed under the shelter, and the beach has a nice little restaurant, bath house and showers so all the comforts you might need are addressed.  Finally it’s time to head back in, so we repeat the drill and enjoy another great dive on the reef.  This is really a beautiful location and the beach setting just adds to the overall experience.  We load the boats up onto trailers, dismantle the camp except the permanent structure, and back to base.  It is unfortunate but theft is prevalent here, so nothing at all can be left on the beach overnight.

I return to the dive center to another pleasant surprise, as Maelle Colin, the owner of Afrikar, is there to greet me.  Afrikar specializes in self-drive off road experiences using their fleet of custom-made two-seater dune buggies, and she has arranged for one of her drivers, Ben, to take me out and show me the area.  We enjoy a great ride with some majestic views of the local lakes, mountains, and coast, with a good mix of down & dirty four-wheeling thrown in for good measure!  We’ll definitely be factoring this option into our diving trips to Sodwana Bay!  Enough for today, the dive staff arrives back to the dive center and we hang out for a couple of hours laughing and sharing stories while enjoying a few cold beverages.  Great way to wrap up a great day!

Day Eight – Transit to Coastal Forest Reserve & Rocktail Bay Lodge

Another morning and the bags are packed once again as my Zulu drivers are here to escort me 80 km north nearly to the farthest northeast corner of the Kwazulu-Natal province, just a stones throw from the Mozambique border and the Coastal Forest Reserve National Park, site of the pristine waters of Rocktail Bay and the home of Rocktail Bay Lodge.  The asphalt ends in short order, and we’re on a bit of a rough dirt road for a good 50 km until we arrive at Coastal Cashews, site of a very small general store and a large cashew farm.  We pull in, my guys engage the gatekeeper in their native tongue, and we’re allowed inside.  I sense they don’t get too many visitors here, but this is the transfer point for me to be picked up by Rocktail Bay’s shuttle.

Sure enough, here comes a Land Rover safari vehicle, complete with tiered seating for guests in the back, and driven by ‘MP’ a super-personable gentleman who has spent the past 30 years working in the bush with various conservation groups and camps.  I truly feel like I have finally arrived in Africa!

It’s another 30 km down a sand and mud track to the lodge, but the time flies as MP runs a continuous dialog of factoids about the area, the forest, the people, and the land.  We pass under some spider webs that stretch entirely across the road, from tree to tree, like a canopy, and the spiders themselves are huge…last thing you’d want to walk through in the dark, that is for sure!  Speaking to MP, his Zulu pride shows through, as it has in every person you talk to in this region.  Before you know it, we have arrived at the resort, and like in the old TV show Fantasy Island, the whole staff is lined up out front to welcome me.  Talk about feeling like royalty!

This lodge is worlds apart from any so far, starting with there is no reception area, the bar is on the honor system, and there are no room keys.  My room, in fact, is a screen-walled hut overlooking a vast forested area, with the ocean visible in the background. There are 17 units here, and I cannot see or hear another one from my cabin or deck; this is truly a private place. As I’m getting settled in, a crash sounds from the roof, and I step outside to see two Bush Babies wrestling on top of my unit. Yes, I’m in Africa for sure now.

I head over Makarran Dive Charters, Rocktail’s on-site dive operator.  Founded and operated by Larry Smith, it’s truly a gem of an operation, totally first-class and just tucked away in the jungle here.  Together with just one other camp, they share the exclusive rights to approx. 30 km of reef along the coast here, so there are no crowds to speak of when you are on the reef. Sonja truly knows how to choose her operators, and I have been favorably impressed every step of the way so far.  We get the logistics squared away for tomorrow – looks like I’m the only diver on the boat!  It just keeps getting better and better!

Walking back over to the lodge, I stop at the pool and meet Wayne and Sandi, from the Johannesburg area, here enjoying a little holiday.  They ask about the diving, and I tell them I suspect it will be pretty fantastic.  Well it turns out that Sandi was previously certified but inactive for many years, and Wayne has been considering giving it a try.  So after a bit of chat and some encouragement, they head over to the dive center to sign up for a DSD and Refresher, and before you know it, I’ll have some company on the boat tomorrow.

A quick lunch, time to update the blog, fire off a few Facebook posts, and take a stroll through the forest before dinner.  It’s really beautiful and quiet here, and one could really get into a state of mental and physical relaxation in short order.  MP finds me and asks if I would like to go look for turtles on the beach tonite, as it is their nesting and hatching season, and of course I agree.  We head out in the dark around 7, as he artfully maneuvers the Land Rover through the woods and onto the beach, and we start cruising along, being careful to only drive on the hard sand below the high water mark, as the turtles dig their nests above that.

We aren’t on the beach 5 minutes when a little movement in front of us catches our eyes, and we stop and jump out to find baby leatherback turtles crawling out of the ground and dragging themselves across the beach and right into the surf.  How absolutely amazingly cool is this?  Probably close to 75 babies dig out of the nest and follow each other to the sea as I stand and watch, utterly speechless.  I am living on the Animal Planet right now, and loving it!  They are popping out of the sand at the nest site, and with some built-in GPS, head right to the ocean, which is probably 200 ft away.  It is amazing, but not a single turtle makes a wrong turn, as soon as they pop their head up, boom…it’s off to the races!

Finally the action slows, and we patrol another 10 km of beach, finally coming upon a loggerhead that just finished laying her eggs and is heading back to the water. MP pulls out his tagging kit and I give him a hand as we delay her escape long enough to get a numbered tag in her front flipper, and take her overall measurements to be sent in to the conservation office.  Enough action for one night; it’s time to head back and get some rest before the real fun starts tomorrow!

Day Nine – Rocktail Bay

Another beautiful dawn awakens me, with the sunlight streaming in all sides of my little jungle shanty. Time for my 7:00 meeting at the dive center, so I head over and meet Ondeyne, Darryl’s instructor and right-hand staff member.  She gives us a briefing about the boat operation, the dive site, and our dive plan, taking into consideration that she’ll be leading Wayne on his DSD experience, and I’ll just be off on the fringe shooting some video and enjoying the view.  Her briefing method and presentation is nothing less than spectacular, and when PADI is ready to produce their next instructor training video, I am going to recommend her for the role!

I ask her about her unique name, and she shares that her mother was a bit of a free spirit, naming all three of her daughters after mystical Nordic characters.  Ondeyne is actually the name of a Scandinavian mermaid who fell in love with a human and had to make a decision between walking on legs next to her love or keeping her tail and living in the sea…..wait one dog-gone minute! I have always wondered where Disney got the inspiration and story line for Ariel and the Little Mermaid….mystery solved!

Well with briefing behind us, and my favorite red head from the sea sorted out, it’s time to follow the boat down to the water in the safari truck for a surf launch.  Here they have a nice reef line running parallel to the beach, so it greatly reduces the size of the waves.  We slip the boat off the trailer, walk it out a bit, jump on, don life jackets, and off we go!  Seven minutes later, we are on the dive site, and as suspected, there is not another boat on the ocean, or for that matter, even on the beach, from horizon to horizon, it is just us.  Not many places you see this!

We backroll in and the viz is 150 ft or so in the 85 degree water.  We gather for a moment at the surface, make sure Wayne and Sandi are good, and drop down to the beautiful reef. Huge Potato Bass swim up to check us out, and the abundance of sea life on this reef is amazing.  Large honeycomb moray eels, anemones and clown fish, leaf fish, a few sharks, a couple of turtles, giant sting rays, all the usual critters, and another new one for me: eggshell cowries, all make for a fantastic dive.  And that was just the first one!

We head back to shore, and tie the boat to a rock while we enjoy a little surface interval and breakfast on the beach.  The lodge has sent down a complete breakfast setting for us, and it is served up on a table overlooking the vast empty beach and majestic sea views. We sit in the shade, sharing stories of what we saw, and how exciting it was for the Wayne and Sandi.  I think they’re hooked, and hope they return for their lessons – I know they’ll be in good hands!   They opt to not do the second dive, so we run them back to the lodge, and Darryl, Ondeyne and I head back out, the only boat on the sea within 30 km, for a very private second dive.  An hour and half later, Ondeyne and I surface, my two video cameras memory cards full, and our tanks nearly exhausted.  We head back to the shore, and of course, in customary last dive of the day fashion, as we approach, it’s maximum throttle as we hit the beach and launch the boat completely clear of the water – what a great adrenalin pumping way to end your dive!

Enough time to actually relax for the first time on the trip, so I catch some southern hemisphere rays laying by the pool.  Lunch is served, and we arrange to head back out for another turtle run tonight. I meet with the new managers coming down to the resort, and talk about how a great destination like Rocktail Bay Lodge must make it onto everyone’s ‘Bucket List’.

Our timing for the beach drive is based on the incoming tide, so it changes every night.  We are allowed on the beach two hours before high tide, and must only drive in the hard sand along below the high tide mark, so as to not inadvertently drive over any turtle nests which are made above the water line.  We head north and sure enough, there’s the tracks of a large turtle that had come in from the surf, and we stop to take a look.  Right before our eyes, there’s a huge female Leatherback just finishing up laying her eggs, and covering the nest with sand.  She turns and begins the difficult task of dragging herself all the way back to the sea, but we need to ask her a few questions first!  We measure her, and tag her, so she can be added into the conservation agency’s database for when we hopefully see her again.  I’m wondering if those were some of her babies that were hatching last night, as a turtle will typically come in to lay 3 or 4 nests of eggs on approx 30 day intervals, before heading off to explore the world for a few years until it’s time to breed again.  Finally, our “interview” is over, and she makes it back into the sea, disappearing below the waves.

It’s high-fives all around and we pile back into the truck and head south for a bit.  Movement ahead, so we stop, and well look at that….an army of little Loggerhead turtles are popping up out of their nest and marching to the sea.  We enjoy this spectacular miracle of life for a while, then head a little further south, and wouldn’t you know it, but another Loggerhead nest is hatching.  So very, very cool to be part of this, and I am so thankful for all the forces that came together for me to be here, right now, experiencing this.

Day Ten – Rocktail Bay and transit to Falaza Game Park

The diving yesterday was too good to not get another one in, so I’m back over to the dive center first thing this morning.  It’s only me, so we throw the gear in the boat, jump on the tractor, and head down to the beach.  The boat’s in, we jump on, and run out to the reef for one last splash.  Again it is totally private, just me and Ondeyne in the water, and not another boat in site, or for that matter, another person on the beach except Darryl driving the boat.  More great life, a few sharks, leaf fish, lots of nudi’s, just a fantastic hour and a half in the water and a fantastic final dive on this adventure.

Too soon and it’s time to head out, so I pile into the 4 x 4 for the ride back to Coastal Cashews to meet with my drivers for the next phase of my adventure.  We head off, leaving the shore behind us, and arrive at Falaza Game Reserve & Spa.  Falaza is an upscale tent camp, which means each room is in a separate tent structure, with a hardwood floor, beautiful furnishings, and a full bath.  That “tent” part is hardly noticed; nothing like my Boy Scout camping days from years gone by!

I’m greeted by the staff again, with the customary welcome drink and an escorted tour around the grounds to get familiar with the property.  My bags show up, carefully balanced on the heads of a couple of staffers, and I’m all set up in my room.  No time to relax though – we’re ready to head out for a game drive!  I walk back up the entrance and meet Game Ranger Justin, who will be our guide & driver, along with Athol & Carin from Johannesburg area.  We immediately connect and there’s no doubt this is going to be a fun ride through the bush in the Land Rover. As Justin drives along and shares jungle-life factoids with us, Athol and I am one-upping each other cracking jokes.  It’s a laugh a minute for the next two hours as we crawl along four wheel drive trails and see Giraffes, Zebras, Blue Wildebeest, Nyala, a couple of Warthogs  w/babies, Impala, Red Duiker, and Vervet Monkey.  We get out of the vehicle a few times, and inspect Foaming Nest Frogs, poisonous Toad Trees, and massive Kite Spiders whose webs stretch across the trail, and in some cases, the entire roadway.  Not something you’d want to walk into in the dark, that’s for sure!

Another critter that is common here is what the Egyptians call Scarab Beetles, but are locally known as Dung Beetles.  These are pretty interesting creatures, and get their name from the fact that the males locate a pile of animal droppings (dung) and carve out a tennis-ball sized chunk, and then roll it around and work it with their legs making it rounder and rounder.  Why, you are asking, would they go to all this effort?  As you might suspect, it’s the universal answer – to impress the chicks!  It seems the females are pretty selective about choosing a mate with good dung rolling skills, and once she is suitably impressed, she’ll insert her eggs into the center of the dung ball. As the larva hatch, they’ll sustain themselves from the nutrient value of the ball material, and enjoy the protection it provides from predators until they are ready to crawl out and meet the world.

We stop for a break, and just like a scene from Out of Africa, Justin brings out a folding table and picnic basket, and we enjoy some light fare under a spreading Marula Tree, the fruit of which is fermented and becomes the source of the liqueur Amarulo.  We watch the sun starting to settle on the horizon, and its time to beat it out of the bush and back to the safety of the camp before the nastier things come out.

Dinner is served on the deck, a perfect way to end a perfect day.  The food and service are top shelf, and the weather couldn’t be better for an evening under the stars. This is truly a very nice place, and again, my hat’s off to Sonja for her recommendation.

Day 11 – Falaza and transit to Duma Zulu

5:30 a.m. and time for a morning game drive in nearby Hluhluwe Game Reserve.   Well, almost nearby, so we start off with a brisk 80 km/hour drive in the open top safari vehicle to make sure we are good and awake for the “Big 5” animals we hope to see.  Hluhluwe is the oldest game reserve in Africa, founded in 1895, and the third oldest in the world.  It is the site most famous for restoring the White Rhinoceros from the brink of extinction.  We enter the massive park through the main gate, and start our drive.  This park has both gravel and off-road areas, so you can opt for a “self-drive” safari and bring passenger vehicles in as long as you stay on the gravel path.  With our 4×4 we are permitted to explore the entire park, and Justin has some strategy in mind as we turn off the beaten path into some deep brush.  We crawl along, spotting endangered African Vultures, various ground birds, various flavors of antelope, impala and the usual.  We also spot a community of Weaver Birds and their very unique nests.  Of course, in another example of sexual inequality in the animal kingdom, the male is responsible for selecting a branch in a tree that overhangs the water, to reduce predation, and also carefully strips all the leaves off the branch so snakes or lizards cannot hide and sneak up on the nest. Then, he goes about gathering grasses and carefully, painstakingly weaves a beautiful round nest, suspended from the selected branch, with a shelf inside for the eggs and babies, and an entrance hole at the bottom. Finally, when it is ready, he puts on a little show to attract a female, and when one does show interest, it’s not him she’s looking at, but his “crib”.  If he built a superior example of a weavers nest, she might decide to grace him with the role of daddy to her eggs.  But, far more likely, she’ll find flaw in his efforts, and then pick at the top of the next until it breaks free of the branch, crashing into the water and causing the male to have to start all over again.  This might be repeated up to five times or more before she is finally happy..sound familiar?

After we’ve had our fill of weaver birds and nest smashing, we go a little further up the road, and suddenly a deep rumbling growl is heard.  We stop the vehicle and wait, and hear it again, getting closer, until finally just in front of us a male Lion emerges from the tall grass and checks us out.  Satisfied we are not a threat, he walks around the vehicle, giving us a good look-over, before finally disappearing back into the bush.  No sooner than he is gone behind us, we hear another one, and sure enough, from the other side of the trail comes another male, strutting about, marking a little turf, and again, showing no fear of us whatsoever.

We spend a total of three hours on the drive, and see more of the standard fare, but the exhilaration of the two lions override anything else we saw today.  First class sightings, and not at all common to see one, let alone two!  Fate has once again been kind.  We motor back to camp, grab my bags, and then Justin runs me down the road to my lodge for the next night, at DumaZulu Village.

Day 12 – DumaZulu, Endomeni, and transit to Thula Thula

In the 1980’s well known philanthropist and Zulu activist Graham Stewart, known as “the White Zulu”, approached King Goodwill Zwelithini, the reigning head of the Zulu Nation, and proposed the development of a center to preserve and present the Zulu culture.  From that idea, DumaZulu was born, and the lodge and village opened in 1994.  Centered around a typical Zulu village, when they advertised for the twenty full time spots for people from the local community to live there, over 200 applied.  Today, in addition to the village, the site includes a full lodge, restaurant, reptile park, turtle rehab center, and more.

I met Heinz, the manager, and he showed me around the entire site.  His energy and passion for his job and the work here exuded from him as he showed me projects under construction, plans for the next phases, and what has been accomplished in the three years he has been at the helm.  His right hand man, Issac, who has been with the project since it was just an idea in Mr. Stewarts head, is my personal tour guide for the day.  A Zulu man himself, he has two wives and four children, but he’s the youngest of nine from his mother, who was one of four wives to his father.  He grew up in a village much like this one, with his father, his mother and the three other wives (who can never be addressed by their first name once they marry), his 47 siblings, and their heard of close to 200 cattle.  Wow!

Isaac introduces me to the members of the village, who live there full time and who produce many of the products sold in the gift store on site, including shields, spears, baskets, pottery, beadwork, and many other traditional village crafts.  I meet the Medicine man (Inyanga) who is preparing potions to cure just about whatever ails you, and the ‘One who talks to the Spirits’ (Isangoma) who has the power to figure out just what it is that is ailing you!  The ancient healing methods are still very much alive and well in the Zulu Nation, and they are proud of their independence from modern “white” medicine.  Before I leave, the village members gather and give me a fantastic cultural show complete with traditional drums, stick fighting, dancing, singing and all the festivities that come together for special occasions such as weddings and funerals.

From there, Heinz drives me over to Endomeni Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, which specializes in the rehab, breeding and release of wild cats.  I meet Carin, the facility manager, and she takes me on a private tour of the facility, showing me all they do there, and then has a special treat for me – some “behind the fence” visits to her favorite cats – Cheetahs!  She has six cheetahs on site, and has been working to entice some breeding between them, but they have frustrated so far.  Her spirit is undaunted, and she’s ready for the long haul here, to send some of her own cheetah offspring out into the wild.  She’s already achieved a great deal of success with her other three breeds of cats, African Wild Cats, Serval, and Caracal (Lynx).  Endomeni also has lodge facilities on site, so visitors can stay on the property and help with the care of the cats as part of the structured program.  Very cool!

Finally, it’s time to say goodbye to Carin and her feline friends, and my shuttle guys are back to take me to the Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park, South Africa’s First Natural World Heritage Site.  The third largest park in SA, it covers an area of almost a million acres, consisting of ocean shoreline, offshore protected reefs, rivers, estuaries, lakes, wetlands and coastal forest. Here we take a boat ride north into the lake, which is the home to over 200 species of fish, over 1,000 crocodiles, and 2,000 hippopotamus! The shores are lined with both white and black mangroves, and vast scenic grassy plains go on forever.  The hippos are amazing, one of the worlds largest animals, they are excellent swimmers, and can stay underwater for up to six minutes while they forage for food on the bottom.  They form social packs of a dozen or more animals, and are extremely protective of their young.  When disturbed, such as by a croc slipping into the water, the adults actually pick the babies up and support them out of the water to keep them out of the hungry mouths of predators.  We enjoy hundreds of these homely creatures in the water as we slowly sail past.

Finally we arrive at the last destination in my adventure, Thula Thula, made famous by the recent best-selling book The Elephant Whisperer.  It’s about 150 km further inland, but thankfully most of the road is paved…most, I did say!  That being said, its almost three hours before we arrive at the gate and I transfer over to another 4×4 for the two mile ride in to the camp. Here I meet Victor, one of the rangers, as he picks me up in his Land Rover for the ride into the camp.  Along the ride he shares stories of the camp, and stops at a few points along the way to show me places that were featured in the book, and it’s really a neat experience to be able to connect in such an intimate way.

At the lodge, I’m greeted by manager Anne Pickard, as she welcomes me to this beautiful boutique camp and shows me to my “hut”, which is the world’s biggest understatement.  However, as we start across the grass, suddenly I sense a presence behind me, and sure enough, here come two huge rhino’s jogging across the lawn to check me out.  Anne sees them, and turns and high-tails back to the main lodge, and I am thinking, that was odd, as I watch these guys approach.  Suddenly Anne is shouting to me to hurry, get back to the lodge, and I am thinking, hmmmm…I might actually be in harms way here!  So I do the appropriate thing, and take a wide track back to join Anne, while the rhino’s stop and watch me. That was kinda close, but cool in a strange African way.

Thankfully, each hut has a front door as well as a large back patio and entrance, so we wait until the rhino’s are resting on the front porch, and we sneak in the back.  You can hear them breathing and grunting with just an inch and a half of wood door between me and them, which really adds to this whole sensory experience!  Again, it’s no time to rest, as we have a game drive heading out in a few, and I don’t want to miss it!

Game rangers Andre, and ranger-in-training Cameron, introduce themselves to me when I return to the lodge.  Both very personable, and knowledgable in the ways of the bush, they’ll be our leaders for this late afternoon excursion.  Joining us will be Pete & Liesl from Ntunzini, SA, and the minute I meet them, I realize that this will be another wise-cracking three hours in the bush with a running commentary coming in from all corners.  We also have an older couple from the UK with us, and once they’re on board we head off.  We quickly learn the difference between a ranger and one in training, as Andre gets to sit inside and drive while Cameron is strapped in the seat on the front fender, “Daktari-style”, and manages to be the first one to experience each massive spider nest we drive through.  It’s comical to watch his seated kung-fu movements each time one wraps around him, but on a positive note, at least he’s keeping those “spiders on steroids” from jumping into the land rover with one of us!

In 2000, the late Lawrence Anthony purchased the property, which at that time was an exclusive hunting camp, and turned it into a permanent preserve for animals to live their lives safely in a natural setting.  Sadly, Anthony suffered a heart attack just a few weeks before my arrival here, but thanks to his artful planning and skillful negotiation with the government, local Zulu chiefs, and the head of the Zulu Nation, he has been able to triple the original size of the reserve and has additional adjacent properties dedicated to be donated to the reserve to allow this property to connect to other reserves and afford the animals huge migratory pathways for movement and growth.

We tour the expansive property, with Andre driving and sharing his wealth of knowledge, while Cameron is kept busy swatting humongous spiders away.   We see herds of impalas, Nyala, warthogs, wildebeest, giraffes, zebras, and finally…..elephants!  Andre spots them while we are driving along a ridge, all the way on another hillside, and asks us if we mind going over there with a bit of a heavy foot on the pedal, since the sun is starting to get close to the horizon.  It was  unanimous “YES!” from all of us, so into the thick brush we headed, taking a shortcut through some thicker stuff, much to Cameron’s disappointment.

We arrive and are greeted by another great surprise – the two herds, led by matriarchs Nana & Frankie, had come together for the evening, and we found ourselves in the midst of twenty-some elephants enjoying their evening meal.  These members of the Pachyderm family have all come from the seven original inhabitants brought to the property by a stroke of luck & chance in 2002, and now are successfully breeding and raising the next generation before our eyes.  The adults tower above our vehicle, 10 to 12 ft at the shoulders, and weighing 12,000-15,000 pounds.  The babies are born weighing 400 pounds and walking with the herd within 15 minutes of birth.  In spite of their massive size, they are amazing graceful and skilled with their trunks, gently selecting which branch they wish to eat, wrapping around it and stripping leaves, or pulling clumps of grass up, then using the trunk to hold and chew the food.

As we enjoy the view at the all-you-can-eat buffet, a bull elephant that had been on the far side of the group starts working his way through the crowd towards us.  Turns out he’s in “musk”, a annual period where is testosterone levels rise to 400% of normal, which tends to make the big boy a bit feisty.  How feisty, you ask……well how about he starts off walking towards us, so we pull back about 30 ft, resume our viewing.  He stops for a pause, realizes we must not have fully gotten the message, then turns, folds his ears back, lowers his head, and breaks into a  full charge at us, running through the brush as if we had a large bulls-eye painted on the side of the ‘Rover.  Holy smokes, this certainly raises the bar on the excitement, as Andre quickly turns the key in the ignition, thankfully the engine fires to life, and down the road we go, while the elephant, realizing he won, slows and watches us fade away, of course with me hanging out of the back and snapping photos the whole time!

Back at the lodge, I meet the other guests, a couple visiting from Austria, and another pair from the Durban area, who actually used to be employed at Thula Thula and come back from time to time to help.  As we are enjoying some refreshments before dinner, we are joined by the lovely Francoise Malby-Anthony, the owner of the property and the widow of the late Lawrence Anthony, famous in his own right for his passion for the protection of animals great and small.  We’ll dine together at one large setting, which really promotes social interaction, as we choose from the menu prepared by Francoise, who studied in the art of cooking in France before coming to Africa twenty-five years ago.  She prepares a unique menu daily for the lodge, with specialties drawn from her background and experience.  After a delightful four-course meal, we move outside to the boma, where they have a raging campfire blazing, and a number of experimental drinks mixed up for us to sample.  Yum, yum – another perfect evening under the African sky, listening to the frogs, and the hyenas singing in the bush. This is a very different, very special sort of camp, and has immediately risen to the very top of my list here!

Day 13 – Thula Thula and transit to Casa Newlands

5:30 in the morning and time to head out to see what we might find.  We don ponchos, as a light rain is falling, and Andre heads us out in different direction than we explored yesterday.  We cross the river, and stop at the pond, which was formed by building an earthen dam across the stream and making an estuary that stays full year round.  It was here that Anthony had sat and watched his beloved elephants swimming, giving their vote of approval on the project, on the morning before he passed away.   His ashes were scattered across the waters of the pond as an eternal salute to the man who did so much for those without a voice.  Today, it is a site full of life, with crocodiles splashing, birds diving and hunting fish, antelope at the edge drinking, and kudo keeping a wary eye on us from the far bank.

We continue along, spotting more of the abundant life here, and suddenly something catches our eye in the edge of the bush.  By golly, it’s an elephant, enjoying some morning browsing from the thick leafy canopy that lined the trail.  We stop, he pauses, senses we are not a threat, and resumes eating, while we sit and watch for a good 20 minutes, shooting video and snapping away with our cameras.  He is extremely photogenic, giving us some fantastic views of the range of dexterity of his trunk as he snaps branches off with ease and crunches them in his massive molars.  We can hear his stomach, emitting that low, deep rumble that elephants use to communicate with each other across miles of bush.  This is a very special treat to be a part of his day!

Back at the lodge, I get to chat with Alyson, the “Rhino Mom”.  She started her career as a veterinary nurse in the UK, then, four years ago, she caught wind that Thula Thula might be the new home of two young orphaned white rhinos, and she wasted no time in packing her things and moving to South Africa to be a part of that.  From the moment the rhinos arrived, she has spent every single day, all day, in their immediate company, bottle feeding them at first, then overseeing them as they learned to take care of themselves in the wild.  She gets  five days off each month, and spends most of them right back here, with her “kids”.  Rain, shine, or whatever Mother Nature throws at them, she is out walking with the rhinos wherever they decide to wander.  And she is not alone with them…poaching of rhino’s for their horn is at an all time high, with 37 killed already this year alone.  What is it with the Chinese and Vietnamese that they can have such a lack of respect for God’s majestic creatures and feel a need to slaughter them just for a little powder made from the horn, primarily believed to be a sexual aphrodisiac.  I hate to slip from my normal political middle-of-the-roadness here, but I think a castration process in the far east should be something to seriously consider and eliminate this ridiculous trade in exotic animal parts.  I will volunteer to hold the knife to help bring an abrupt end to the sexual activity of anyone who considers that killing a rhino makes him more of a stud.

OK….stepping down from my soapbox…..I opt to join in on the 11 o’clock Safari Walk-a-bout, a Game Drive on foot.  This is amuch more intimate experience, as we cover far less territory, but examine the bush to a much deeper extent, covering the flora, fauna, biological processes, inter-actions, and more…and once again, Andre impresses the heck out of me with his knowledge.

Finally, it’s time to say goodbye, and Cheryl picks me up to tour the coastal Durban area, downtown, and then finally to Sonja’s house north of the city.   My host Sonja has prepared a traditional braai, (Afrikan for BBQ) for me to enjoy as I meet her family.  Husband Roy comes from an agricultural background, speaks Zulu fluently, and understands the culture and society of the Zulu people from his years of running a large farming operation.  Today, he works for the government, developing and implementing projects that directly benefit the Zulu people, from agriculture, to economics, to school nutritional programs that support the local community, and more.  His versatility is impressive and the proven results of his efforts speak volumes about this man.  On top of that, he is an avid fisherman, diver and participant in triathlons, marathons, mountain biking, and other grueling sporting events.  I also get to meet their kids, Luke and Hana, ages 6 and 4 respectively.

Dinner is fantastic, and Roy introduces me to Phoenix beer, an excellent pilsner brewed on the tiny island nation of Mauritius off the coast of Madagascar.  Good to support an even more local economy during my travels!

Day 14 – Taking the Long Road Home

Great morning with Sonja summarizing the good, great and otherwise on this journey, and how to make this affordable and enticing to Americans to travel here and experience what I did.

And you know, you can never get enough Amazingly Small World stories….I’m driving back to the airport with my friend Cheryl and she tells me someone in her office wants to talk to me.  It seems that when she took my business card back the other day, it caused quite a stir in the office.  So she calls, and I speak to her office manager Thiloshnie, who, it turns out, did a stint as an au pair a few years back in Harleysville, and now her sister lives there full time.  She asked if I knew where Henning’s Market was, and of course I do, and she tells me that they like to get their manicures at Fancy Nails there in the Meadowbrook Shopping Plaza.  Is that amazing or what?

And now I have a chance to do my part to make it an amazingly small world for Cheryl’s group of Villlanova University nursing students coming in May – Indian Valley Travel is hosting a welcome beach party and traditional braai for them when they arrive in Africa.  What a surprise that will be for them, eh – a zillion miles from home, and a gift from a friend back home!  We’ll treat the Mavern Prep students with the same when they arrive a little late.  It’s good to plant seeds, near and far!

Finally I’m at the Durban airport to begin my 30 hour journey home.  I bid farewell to Cheryl, and having learned my tricks in navigating the South African Airlines excess baggage fee system, I walk right up to the First Class counter (with my economy ticket) and strike up a nice conversation with the young man there.  We get to talking about scuba, and he starts to mention that my bags are both overweight and I have too many of them, when I suggest that SAA has a sporting goods exemption, and he smiles, knowing that I know at least a little.  So he picks up the phone, chats a bit, and then asks if I am going right to security or if I am going to shop or eat first since I have plenty of time.  Seems that he needs an “over-write code” and the supervisor that can give him that is in a meeting, so he asks if I can just leave my bags with him and come back a little later for my boarding pass.  I smile, and agree……another system figured out, and another way around it in the traveling tool kit!

Finally 30 hours later, I arrive home, exhausted yet thrilled, and so excited about going back with friends to share this most amazing place!

The End!

‘Phinding’ our way back to the Land of the Pharaohs!

Team IVS gallops back into the land of the Pharaohs!

We’ve waited a year  since our last visit to the land of the Pharaohs and it’s high time to return!  This time we’re on a bit of a different mission, combining the beauty and history of this ancient land with modern efforts to preserve the fragile ecosystem of the reefs of the Red Sea – a perfect combination for adventure, education and a ‘Leave No Trace’ approach via the support of sustainable travel through Indian Valley Travel.

Part I – The Journey  Our adventure will start with our group gathering in Cairo and taking in the cultural highlights of that bustling metropolis, then we’ll tone it down a little as we journey southward and up the Nile to the city of Luxor, and finally, we’ll swap cameras and sunhats for work gloves and neoprene and begin the actual working portion of this travel odyssey along the shores of the Southern Red Sea in El Qusier, as we join forces with representatives of HEPCA on conservation projects they have started along the shore .  A perfect trifecta of seeing what was, what is, and what we can do to protect for future generations!

My American sidekick for this adventure is Joe Cox, a fellow diver and neighbor, who is working his way through his ‘bucket list’ of places to dive and see in his lifetime.  Egypt was high on that list, so the timing of our Red Sea visit was just perfect.  We’ll join up with local forces and some other folks traveling in from Europe to assist us on the project tasks, but first, we’ll have a few days to relax and breath in the historical air of this land.

Joe, a travel professional in his “day job”, booked himself on a Turkish Airlines flight out of JFK through Istanbul and then on to Cairo.  “Man, that’s nuts!”, I thought, and I booked myself on tried and true Delta Airlines, starting in PHL getting to Cairo via stops in New York and Paris.  So I said goodbye to Joe as he headed out early Saturday morning to drive to New York and begin his adventure.  Heck, I had a whole day at home ahead of me, not departing PHL until 6:30 this evening.

Well the weather got a little funny later that afternoon, and a tornado actually touched down just outside of NYC, so guess what?  Yes, the FAA issued a ground hold for flights coming into the New York airports and we got to sit in Philly for a bit longer.  Long enough, in fact, for me to miss my connecting flight to Paris by the time we arrived at JFK.  Great!  Well to Delta’s credit, they entertained me for the night, and re-booked me the next day on, yep, you guessed it, the same Turkish Air flights that Joe took today!  So an uneventful night in the city, without my luggage, and finally I was jetting off across the Atlantic to catch up with Joe, albeit a day later!

Now it’s funny, because I usually have a TSA nightmare to share when I travel, but today, when they spun the big wheel, the arrow landed on “Joe”, and he got to take the brunt of America’s first line of insecurity all by his lonesome.  Seems Joe was traveling with a 30 cubic foot pony bottle (small scuba cylinder) in his checked luggage, with valve removed and no pressure inside, so totally and completely safe and within every published TSA and FAA document that exists.  Now of course, yes, by the use of the word “document” there, it would imply that the worker bees in the front lines actually took the time to read the rules they are supposed to be enforcing.  In Joe’s case, it was pretty obvious that they had not!

So after Joe had checked his bags, gotten his boarding pass, cleared security, and made it to the gate, he was called on the PA system to return to the ticket counter.  Turns out that the TSA agents did not like his cylinder, and said it could not go in his back.  He was a bit befuddled, thinking he was about to abandon his tank, but the Turkish Airlines representative stepped up and said, “We could put it in a box.”  Well, that solved the problem, and Joe’s possible HazMat / WMD item was safely taped into a cardboard box and laid on the conveyor to be loaded on the plane, not “inside” his luggage (that would be bad!) but “next to” his luggage (which evidently is A-OK).  When someone can figure out the logic in that, please call me!!

Back to our flights – Joe arrived on time, with all his stuff, minus his cardboard box.  He was met by our man Afifi in the terminal, received his required tourist visa, and took the opportunity to relax for the day in our luxury hotel, the Mena House, to await my arrival. He was informed that I was not coming that evening, but in the morning, and not to worry, he was not being abandoned in a foreign land!

Mohammed is thrilled with how Dave has “pimped his ride” with a shiny new IVS sticker!

So I arrived in the morning, and after traveling all night, and I have to say, the Turkish Airlines international flight was absolutely first class, in the attitude and attentiveness of the staff, the condition of the plane, and nearly everything else.  Now the domestic flight was something entirely different, with no one paying attention to seat assignments, lots of staring at the gringo, quite a bit of pushing and shoving, and a real wake up call that I was not in Kansas anymore!  But we got there, I met Afifi, got my visa, and found out that my luggage had failed to make the connection somewhere, so I was bagless in Cairo.  However, on a positive note, Joe Cox’s box was there, but they could not give it to me, cause I was not Joe.  Rules, we have rules…sometimes! Geeesh!  I tried to trace my bags but that was an exercise in frustration, so I emailed my friends at Delta and left it in their good hands, believing I’d see my stuff soon enough.  Oh well, on to the start of the tours!  Outside I re-connected with my driver from last year, Mohammed, and he told me that his van needed a new IVS sticker, so I promptly took care of that!

Part II – Ancient Cairo  Monday morning was bright and sunny – what a surprise, since it rains a maximum of two days a year here!  But the weather didn’t matter, cause it was time to immerse ourselves in history!  We met our certified Egyptologist, Manal, and our driver Farag, at the hotel, to begin a day of education and familiarization with this land so rich in history.  Manal was my guide during my last visit also, and she truly is an expert in everything Egypt that takes her job to heart.  We had such a wonderful time last time I was here that I wanted to give her a big hug, but had to restrain myself – men hugging woman that are not your wife is definitely not cool here!  So, a respectful handshake had to suffice.

Our first spot was the Temple of Memphis, located just south of Cairo.  Memphis was the ancient capital of Aneb-Hetch, the first nome (administrative disttrict) of Lower Egypt.  There were 42 nomie in all of Egypt, and Aneb-Hetch had the distinction of being District #1.  According to legend, the city was founded by the pharaoh Menes around 3000 BC.  It was the capital of Egypt during the period known as Old Kingdom, and even after that it remained an important city throughout ancient Mediterranean history.  It occupied a strategic position at the mouth of the Nile delta, and was home to feverish activity during its heyday. Its port harboured a high density of workshops, factories, and warehouses that distributed food and merchandise throughout the ancient kingdom. During its golden age, Memphis thrived as a regional center for commerce, trade, and religion.

Massive statues under restoration at the Memphis Temple

Memphis was believed to be under the protection of the god Ptah, the patron of craftsmen. Its great temple, Hut-ka-Ptah (literally, the “Enclosure of the ka of Ptah”), was one of the most prominent structures in the city. As a side note, the name of this temple, rendered in Greek as Aί γυ πτoς (Ai-gy-ptos) by the historian Manetho, is believed to be the etymological origin of the modern English name Egypt. Like most of Egypt’s historical centers, its eventual downfall is most likely due to the loss of its economic significance as the nearby coastal port of Alexandria rose in prominence.  To add to the uniqueness of our experience here, we had the opportunity to chat with a team of Japanese scholars and archaeologists who were here on a project doing 3-dimensional mapping of the carvings on the temple walls.  Pretty cool!

The Great Pyramid of Giza, with our Egyptologist Manal

And no visit to Cairo is complete without a visit to the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the El Giza Necropolis bordering what is now modern day Cairo. It is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one to remain largely intact. Egyptologists believe that the pyramid was built as a tomb for Pharaoh Khufu during the 4th Dynasty, over a 10 to 20-year period approx. 2,560 BC. With an original height of 481 feet, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years.

And talk about serious construction project: The Great Pyramid consists of an estimated 2.3 million limestone blocks with most believed to have been transported from nearby quarries. The Tura limestone used for the casing was quarried across the river. The largest granite stones in the pyramid, found in the “King’s” chamber, weigh 25 to 80 tons (each!!) and were transported from Aswan, more than 500 miles away. Traditionally, ancient Egyptians cut stone blocks by hammering wooden wedges into the stone which were then soaked with water. As the water was absorbed, the wedges expanded, causing the rock to crack. Once they were cut, they were carried by boat either up or down the Nile River to the pyramid.It is estimated that 5.5 million tons of limestone, 8,000 tons of granite (imported from Aswan), and 500,000 tons of mortar were used in the construction of the Great Pyramid.  Access to the interior is provided via the “robbers tunnel”, bored in approx 820 AD, which was used to penetrate and loot the burial chambers – amazing how some things never change, eh?

Pyramids as far as the eye can see! What a land so rich in culture and history!

From there we headed down to the Giza Plateau, the site of numerous pyramids, and there we were able to visit a burial chamber (looted, of course), and toured a few of the other ones.  Joe got his mandatory camel ride in here too, so that’s off his ‘bucket list’!  There are approx 100 pyramids remaining in Egypt today, many in terrible condition, but there were quite a few more over time.  As the powers in charge changed, old pyramids were no longer guarded or respected, so not only did you have grave robbers going for the treasure, you also had ever Tom, Dick & Mohammed who had a local building project and who need stone or granite facades going there and dismantling the pyramid – I suppose we can trace the roots of recycling and “building Green” back to the Egyptians too, eh?

Young carpet weavers hard at work employing their skills

Time for lunch so we visited a local eatery and ate an unidentifiable meal, but heck , it was good!  Then we drove over to a carpet factory and watched them hand weave carpets.  What an intricate process, and I’m not saying anything, but I don’t believe they have very strong child labor laws here either!!  Just saying!

Next on the list was the Papyrus Institute, where we were given a hands-on demonstration in the making of original papyrus-based paper.  The papyrus plant, native to the shores of the upper Nile, played a large roll in the early documentation of history and the creation of easily transported documents. Paper was a huge step in the advancement of civilization as we know it today.  I know it’s hard for some of our younger readers to remember, but there was in fact a time before email and texting!!  OK, OK, grandpa’s going back to his rocker now!

The other words needed!

We wrapped up a whirlwind day with a visit to perhaps the most well known and highly photographed symbol of ancient Egypt, the Sphinx! Considered by many to be the greatest monumental sculpture in the ancient world, the Sphinx is carved out of a single ridge of stone 240 ft. long and 66 ft. high. The head, which has a markedly different texture from the body, and shows far less severe erosion, is a naturally occurring outcrop of harder stone. To form the lower body of the Sphinx, enormous blocks of stone were quarried from the base rock. The origin and period of construction of the Sphinx is highly argued among Egyptologists and historians; some maintain that the Sphinx was constructed in the 4th Dynasty by the Pharaoh Chephren, but most think that the evidence points to a far greater age.  With absolutely no inscriptions on the Sphinx, or on any of the temples connected to it that, there is little scientific evidence to tie it into any specific period.

Some even argue that the erosion on the body of the statue actually is from water, not wind, and that could take the age back perhaps to 10,000 BC, based on astrological studies, and other theories.  No matter how you look at it, the Sphinx is truly amazing and a true wonder of the world!  Time to head back to the hotel and catch up on some much needed rest!  Whew!

Mosque of Mohammed Ali aka Alabaster Mosque

Tuesday started off bright and early with a 7:30 pickup my Manal to pick up where we left off yesterday. The Department of Tourism must have been a little slow, so we picked up an additional escort to help ensure that our experience in Egypt was without incident.  Our first stop is the very famous Mosque of Mohammed Ali (the ancient Egyptian, not the boxer!).  Also known as the Alabaster Mosque from the material used in it’s construction, it towers over the city of Cairo on a commanding bluff.  Constructed between 1830 and 1848 by Muhammad Ali Pasha in memory of his oldest son Pasha, who died in 1816.  Situated on the summit of the citadel, this Ottoman mosque, the largest to be built in the first half of the 19th century, is, with its animated silhouette and twin minarets, the most visible mosque in Cairo.

Like so many other key historical projects in this land, prior to the completion of the mosque, the alabastered panels from the upper walls were taken away and used for the palaces of Abbas I. The stripped walls were clad with wood painted to look like marble. In 1899 the mosque showed signs of cracking and some inadequate repairs were undertaken. But the condition of the mosque became so dangerous that a complete scheme of restoration was ordered by King Fuad in 1931 and was finally completed under King Farouk in 1939.

One of the highlights of the mosque is a brass clock tower in the middle of the northwestern riwak, which was presented to Muhammad Ali by King Louis Philippe of France in 1845. The clock was reciprocated with the obelisk of Luxor now standing in Place de la Concorde in Paris.  Good deal for the French, the obelisk is perfectly functional, yet the clock never worked!

One of the impromptu highlights of the trip so far was our group gathering in a circle on the floor of the mosque and engaging in about a two hour discussion of religions, history, world affairs, and how they are all tied together.  Our guide Manal was a wealth of knowledge to share with regards to thousands of years of religious history in the middle east, through conversions, invasions, suppression, politics and other affairs that impacted the who/what/why of religious practices and choices (or non-choices) for those involved.  Thank you Manal!

Nassar’s Little House of Horrors, the political prison, built on the grounds of the former citadel under the Alabaster Mosque

As we strolled around the mosque grounds, which were built on an original citadel, built to defend the city two hundred years ago, we took in some other historical sites too.  During the period that Nageb Nassar ruled Egypt, a huge network of political prisons were built to control the population and limit free thinking, and one of the largest complexes were built right under the shadow of the Alabaster Mosque.  The prisoners were liberated and the facility demolished by Anwar Sadat when he came to power in 1972, but the ruins remain as silent testimony to the terror that the people must have lived under during that time.

Our next stop stop was one of the most famous in Cairo, the National Museum of Antiquities.  On our way, we passed through the world’s largest Muslim cemetery, over 8 square kilometers covering both sides of the highway for several miles.  A pretty amazing site, and Manal pointed out the variations in the tombs, the mausoleums, and the houses that were scattered all through this very holy site.  Lots of history and even more to be learned here, that’s for sure!

Finally we arrived at the Museum, and no matter how many times you visit this place, you only leave thirsting for more.  It is the holy grail of ancient preserved history, and you could spend a couple of weeks here just taking it all in.  Sadly, we only have a couple of hours, so we’re doing the “Cliff Notes” version of 10,000 years of history!

Museum of Antiquities in Cairo

The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities contains many important pieces of ancient Egyptian history. It houses the world’s largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities, and many treasures of King Tutankhamen. The Egyptian government established the museum in 1835, and moved half a dozen times over the years before ending up in 1902 at it’s current location adjacent to Tahrir Square, the site of the major protests that led up to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.  The respect of the people is so great for their history, that a human chain was formed around the museum during the conflict, and no damage was suffered at all, minus a little looting of the gift shop and the destruction of two mummies as the robbers searched for treasure on the bodies.

Khan el-Khalili bazaar in Cairo

After our visit to the Museum it was time to move on, and grab a bit of a late lunch before heading back in the direction of the hotel.  Manal had a special treat for us today, a visit to the El-Fishawy coffee house in the middle of Khan el-Khalili bazaar, once the center of all trading in Old Cairo.  Built in the 1300’s, the bazaar has been operating continuously since.  She ordered us a tray of drinks and then disappeared around the corner to negotiate some little delights for us, Foul and Felafel, served in a little bag.  The Foul (yes, auspicious name I know) kinda looked like re-refried beans in a pita bread shell, with some other stuff in there.  They were OK. Our favorites though were the Felafels, which were some sort of meat-bearing mix with some greenery rolled up, breaded and fried.  These were good, so good in fact we ordered a second round!

Located in the the heart of the center, al-Fishawi (El Fishawy) is Egypt’s most famous, and most exciting coffee shop. Al-Fishawi has been open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for hundreds of years, and used to be a favorite haunt of artists and writers such as Nobel prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz.  How’s that for a little Egyptian trivia?

The so-called “cafe of mirrors” extends along the side of one of Khan al-Khalili’s narrow alleyways, and has a gorgeous, carved wood (mashrabia) interior. These days, the sheer volume of people visiting al-Fishawi means rickety wooden tables and chairs spill out in to the alley itself, with the effervescent waiters fighting a constant battle to squeeze the extra bodies in somewhere – we witnessed this the entire time we were there! The atmosphere is chaotic, with a heady mix of tourists, locals, shop-keepers and trinket-sellers variously drinking, shouting, and pushing their way through the throng.  Sometimes the vendors get a tad aggressive, and the word “No!” does not seem to exist in their dictionary –  think Tijuana or Jamaica, but with a gallebaya.

Finally, one last long trek through rush hour traffic and absolutely insane drivers to our hotel, to pack and await our 4:30 a.m. wake-up call for our flight to Luxor.

Part III – Luxor on the Nile  The alarm rang waaaay too early but it was time to get our move on and head to the airport.  We packed, grabbed an early breakfast, and piled into the van for a ride across town to the Cairo airport.  Along the way we passed queues of vehicles lined up for fuel; it seems that one thing that has not been restored since the revolution has been the timely delivery of fuel to the gas stations.  Sorta reminded me of the U.S. in the 70’s!  Never the less, our tank was full, so not to worry – today!   Once we arrived at the airport, we unloaded, bid goodbye to our driver, and passed through security with nary a glitch.  No need to remove anything like electronics from our bags, just pile them on the belt, no need to space them out, bags on top of bags….it would be impossible to actually “see” what was in the bags through the monitor, if anyone was really looking.  It certainly makes you wonder if this is a charade, because not a single bag didn’t make it through and there was no secondary inspection at all. I’m not even sure the metal detector was turned on as I walked through it with a few things in my pocket that should have caused at least a little sound.  Aaah, the beauty of domestic travel in a foreign country!

We arrive at the ticket counter, and here is where the inefficiency kicks it into high gear.  The ratio of Egypt Air employees to passengers in line is like 3-to-1, and it takes an amazing amount of time to get checked in and our boarding passes printed.  I cannot for the life of me figure out what could be so complicated, but it just was.  Good thing we were plenty early for our flight; traveling on “Valaika time” woul d have been a disaster here!  We finally are ready to receive our boarding passes, but wait, we have an extra bag each, according to the ticket counter (but not according to the airline website).  Who’s to argue though, so I get the cost, and everyone says just put it on your card and we’ll give you cash.  OK, no sweat….I whip out my MasterCard, but guess what? No money is taken at the ticket counter; I need to go to the cashier located practically in the next terminal to give them my money and get my receipt stamped.  Off I go, leaving my bags guarded by the others, and find the cashier station, three guys behind a desk with a couple of hand-held credit card swipers.  Process completed, receipt punched and stamped a few times, I head back to the original counter, work my way through the throng, and my agent then starts to finish the processing of our boarding passes.  But wait, I only have one receipt, and we have multiple passengers!  Aaaaarggh!   He finally figures it out, and we get our passes.  Whew!!

So in the end, the combination of confusion between the “two free checked bags” and “only one carry-on” worked in our favor as we had our camera and electronics gear in a couple of backpacks and duffle bags with us, and no desire to check any of this sensitive stuff!  So paying the extra bag fee was probably a wise investment.  Finally, boarding passes in hand, we head towards our gate, and hunker down for a cold soda and free WiFi at the Coffeeshop Café before boarding our plane.  Of course, we have to pass through another security screening station at the gate, but we got the same passing grade as the first one, so we were good to go.

It’s a relatively short flight and we’re greeted by our new guide and driver at the Luxor Airport.  Emile will be our guide, and he’s got a great command of local and national history to share. I notice the cross tattooed on the inside his wrist, and ask if he is Coptic, and of course the answer is yes.  Coptic mothers tattoo their young children as a sign that they are “Coptic for life”, a tradition dating back hundreds of years.  During our next two days together, he provides a very good insight into the two primary religions in the area, the history and relationship between them, and how they affect life in this country even to this day.

We get checked into our hotel, the Sheraton Luxor Resort, and thanks to my Lifetime Gold status with them, our rooms are upgraded to riverside balcony suites!  Nice!!  We decide to take a couple hour break before beginning our tour, grab some lunch, and retire to our rooms to refresh.

The massive entrance walls to Karnak Temple

Our first stop is the massive Temple of Karnak, comprised of a vast mix of decayed temples, chapels, pylons, and other buildings. Building at the complex began approx 2,000 BC and continued until the time of the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC.  It served as the main place of worship and a community center during those two millenia.  During that period approx. thirty different Pharaohs contributed to the construction, enabling it to reach a size, complexity, and diversity not seen elsewhere.  Each one added another wing, or column, or fountain, and of course statues, usually bigger and more intricate than what had been done before…yes, a little competitive nature existed even back then!

Today, the complex is a vast open-air museum and the largest ancient religious site in the world. It is believed to be the second most visited historical site in Egypt, second only to the Giza Pyramids near Cairo. It consists of four main parts of which only the largest is currently open to the general public.  The three other parts, the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Montu, and the dismantled Temple of Amenhotep IV, are off limits. There also are a few smaller temples and sanctuaries located outside the walls, as well as several avenues of goddesses and ram-headed sphinxes connecting the Precinct of Mut, the Precinct of Amun-Re, and the Luxor Temple.

Just one of the 100+ columns in the Temple of Karnak – look at the man in front of the column for reference!

One famous aspect of Karnak, is the Hypostyle Hall in the Precinct of Amun-Re, a hall area of 50,000 sq ft with 134 massive columns arranged in rows. Some of the columns are 65 ft tall, with diameters or 10 ft. The caps on top of these columns are estimated to weigh 70 tons. Many theories abound concerning the means of construction, but no matter how, they got it done and it just blows you away to be standing in the middle of it!

Luxor Temple

Well enough of huge, historical sites….almost!  The sun is getting low in the sky, and it’s time to head down the road a bit to Luxor Temple, just about 3 kilometers down Sphinx Avenue.  This site was constructed approx 1,400 BC as part of the overall Karnak / Luxor temple complex in what was then known as the capital of the civilized world.

The actual purpose of the temple is unclear, however it it has been determined that the Luxor temple held a great significance in the annual Opet Festival a celebration of life and fertility in the Nile Valley.  However, as the ancient religions came to pass, the temple fell into disarray.  From medieval times the Moslem population of Luxor had settled in and around the temple, and as the cities population grew, they began building on top of and around the Luxor temple, piling centuries of rubble into what had been this most historic and beautifl place.  In fact, it is estimated that the rubble had accumulated to the point where there was an artificial hill some forty-eight or fifty feet in height.  In the late 1880’s historians began the process of excavating the temple and starting the restoration process. Today, it is one of the most beautiful historic sites in all of Egypt, and certainly one not to be missed!

With the ‘East Bank’ behind us, it was time the following morning to cross the Nile to the ‘West Bank’.  The significance, in ancient times, of the two sides of the river was that the sun rose in the east, bringing “life”, and then it set in the west, bringing “death” to each day.  So the east side of the river was full of life, the community was built there, the temples and government centers, all that was Luxor in its heyday.  At the same time, the opposite bank became an area for burials, in keeping with the ‘death’ theme, and was covered with tombs and burial grounds of every order of magnitude, from massive memorial structures, deep, hidden underground tombs for leaders and the nobles, and simple ‘potters field’ sites for the common folk and worker-bees.

Valley of the Kings was the first stop for today, and headed on in to explore.  Unfortunately, this is a “no cameras” zone, so we’ve got nothing visual to share.  This is a natural valley between some large sandstone hills that served as a central pathway for the excavation and construction of massive tomb networks for a number of pharaohs and some of their family members.  Some of the tombs are absolutely massive, extending hundreds of feet below the ground and with dozens of huge, ornately decorated chambers and rooms, while others are a tad more modest, maybe only 100 feet in, and just a couple of chambers, in addition to the burial chamber itself.  The tombs were built over many years while the intended permanent resident was still alive, and were never completely finished while that person was alive; that would bring bad mojo into the otherwise gifted lives they led.  However, as soon as the last breath had passed their lips, a seventy-day clock started for the simultaneous embalming/mummification of the corpse, as well as the completion of the tomb.  It was also very interesting to note how the complexity and grandeur of the tombs declined in line with the economic position and power of Egypt over time.  Rameses II was by far the largest as was the tomb for his 70-some sons, while by the time they got to the era of Rameses V and VI, those two ended up sharing a tomb for eternity.  Of course, the tombs fell victims to grave robbers over the years, and often the robbers, pressed for time during the crime, simply hauled the mummy off site to strip them of any treasures buried inside the body, then dumped the corpse along the road side.  Sounds like parts of Mexico today, eh?

Deir El-Bahri Temple

Cameras back in hand, it’s time to head down the road a piece to one of the most beautifully restored memorial sites in Egypt, the ‘Holu of Holies, more commonly known as the Deir El-Bahri Temple.  This mortuary temple was constructed over a period of fifteen years during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut, the only female Pharaoh in the history of Egypt.  She is actually the only female ruler buried in the Valley of the Kings, a testament oh her behalf that she was as powerful and important as the male rulers before her.  In fact, she actually kind of stole the crown when her older brother died, and before her much-younger brother Tuthmose III could ascend to the monarchy.  Now I’m no expert, but according to my observations, this evidently didn’t go over well with him, and in today’s perspective, he could probably have benefited by some anger management counseling.  Hatshepsut’s cause of death is unknown (hmmmmm…) but you can guess who ascended to the throne with her out of the way.  It’s interesting, and perhaps I’m reading too much into this sibling rivalry, but after Tuthmose III became the Supreme Ruler, he made a point of having every painted or  carved image of his sister that he could find chiseled away from every temple wall, monument, and any other place her image has been pasted during her twenties years of leadership.  Not too suspicious, I know, but I’m just wondering if there might have been a connection between his “issues” and her passing!

Queen Hatshepsut’s image in Karnak Temple defiled by her jealous brother, Tuthmose III – yep, I can’t see her either!

It’s almost time for a lunch break before we get on the road to El Qusier, but we can’t ignore another of Luxor’s fabulous and historic sites, the ruins of the Temple of Memnon.  This was built by the Greeks and named in honor of Memnon, at the time the King of Ethiopia, and a hero in the Trojan War.

The Colossi of Memnon are two massive stone statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III that stood guard at the entrance of the temple, which at the time was the most massive and opulent in the world, dwarfing even the Temple of Karnak.  They have stood for nearly 3,400 years (since 1350 BC) and remained essentially untouched until the temple was destroyed by an earthquake in 27 BC.  An interesting note is that one of the cracks that came as a result of the earthquake is such that on certain days, usually at dawn, the breeze coming in from the Nile causes the statue to “sing”, just adding even more legend and mystery to the site.

One of the twin statues of the Colossi of Memnon….Joe looks a little shorter than usual in this shot!

For those readers with a special place in our hearts for sliderules and the such, here’s some Engineering Factoids: the statues are made from blocks of sandstone, quarried from a site near Cairo, and transported 420 miles to the site of the Temple.  They are 60 ft tall, and weigh in at 720 tons each.  Yes, 720 TONS!  It leaves me in a state of awe just pondering how they managed to excavate, load, transport, carve and then erect these statues in place, all without the benefit of modern technology and equipment.  My hat is off in respect to the engineers behind so many of the monuments and temples that were designed and constructed in this land over the the thousands of years of ancient Egyptian history.

Another fine example of the local cuisine that we have enjoyed at every meal!

Finally it’s time to say goodbye to the city of Luxor and it’s beauty, and get on the road.  We’ve got a 4 1/2 hour ride to El Qusier to being the next phase of our adventure, and see Egypt from a whole different perspective – underwater!  But first, we need to eat, so what better than a local establishment like the Oasis Palace in downtown Luxor.  Built in a converted luxury apartment building from the 1800’s, it in itself just requires you to stroll through and take in the beauty and dated charm of what must have been one of the fanciest apartment buildings in town at the time.  We enjoyed some more of the local culinary delights, and Joe was proud to model with his meal before we dug in and enjoyed!

Scenes from a local Bedouin village along the way

The ride across the desert was uneventful, and we enjoyed several more hours of interactive Eypytian Q&A with our guide Emile.  This is a vast land, with sweeping expanses of desert and rocky mountains as far as the eye can see.  We passed a number of Bedouin villages, repleat with camels and pickup trucks, situated in the harsh landscape. It is amazing how these hardworking people have managed to learn to exist and endure in the conditions, yet they continue to thrive there today.

Roots Luxury Camp – El Qusier, Egypt

Part IV – The Red Sea Finally, we arrive at our destination – Roots Luxury Camp on the shores of the Red Sea in El Qusier!  Our hosts Clare & Steve Rattle meet us and give us the complete tour of the upscale camp and resort. It is a very unique operation with 36 rooms that vary from traditional thatch-roofed open air bungalows to air-conditioned suites with in-suite bath and more.  There’s a lovely restaurant / dining hall for meals, exquisitely prepared by Roots’ head chef Bibo and his staff, along with a bar, patio area, and sheesa court for our enjoyment.   Two hundred meters away, situated right on the sandy shores of the Red Sea, is Roots Beach, with another bar and dining facility, tables & umbrellas on the beach, a bathhouse, and a full range of watersports activities for our pleasure.

Also on site is Pharaoh Dive Club – El Qusier, one of the top dive centers in Egypt.  Founded in 2005, Pharaoh has grown to be the destination of choice for discriminating divers who demand the best conditions, highest level of services, most attentive staff, and first class training while enjoying the world class diving the Red Sea offers.  Primarily drawing on the Western European markets (France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, and the Scandinavian countries), they are also seeing a growing population of US visitors who come to take advantage of the fantastic conditions and great values the Red Sea center offers.

The sand volleyball court at Roots Camp – perfect!

We’re joined this week by a group of 16 from Diving 2000, a dive center in Denmark, along with some additional travelers from the UK.  The camaraderie and social energy at the camp is immediately apparent, with lots of smiles, friendliness and conversation all around.  This is going to be a great week here, we can tell already! The camp hosts a great sand volleyball court at its center, and there’s plenty of action going on there to join in on!

Our mission here is two-fold: to dive and take in the splendor and wonder of the Red Sea, and to work with some local environmental organizations to develop programs for our returning divers to participate in when this visit on upcoming Red Sea adventures we have planned for 2013 & beyond.  Once we’re settled in, and set up our gear at the dive center, it’s time for a couple of check out dives to make sure everything is good to go for the week.

Diving the caverns at Pirates Boneyard, El Qusier

We jump in the van and head down to El Qusier harbor, where we’ll use Pharaoh’s 80 ft “mother ship” as our staging area, then, since the dives are so local, we’ll actually conduct them from their 20 ft high-speed inflatable, returning to the big boat for in-between dive snacks and surface interval times.  Our first dive is to a site called Pirates Boneyard, and if you could ever imagine a dive center based on the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, this would be it!  With massive canyons and caverns to explore, this site, located just outside the harbor entrance, has managed to collect more than its fair share of drifting nets, ropes and lines, and other various other bits of marine debris, so the effect as we swam through the canyons was utterly breathtaking, with the decorations hanging from above as we passed along.  The corals and sea life evidently haven’t suffered either, and we enjoyed the colorful display of a huge variety of hard corals, many indigenous to the Red Sea, as we spent an hour in this nautical wonderland.  What a great way to start it off!  After a short interval, we’re back in the water for dive #2, enjoying the tremendous array of reef critters large and small, and all colorful, that flourish here.

A friendly octopus out checking me out during a night excursion – it stayed and played peek-a-boo for quite a while before calmly swimming away

And if that wasn’t enough to kickstart our Red Sea diving adventure, we participated in a night dive off the beach right here at the camp, spending a hour and a half exploring all the wonderfully cool critters that live in the nocturnal world.  Huge, and I mean huge, Flamingo Dancer nudibranchs, crabs, snails, urchins, octopus’s, turtles and more made for a very colorful and interesting dive!

Big snail, one of many, out enjoying the night dive with us. Beautiful shell and mantle, another masterpiece of nature

Enjoying a post-night dive barbecue on the beach with our Danish friends at Roots Luxury Camp

And while we were enjoying ourselves underwater, Bibo and his team were busy topsides, setting up and cooking for a delicious beach BBQ for our group, served under the stars at Roots Beach.  Several meat choices, plenty of veggies, desserts, and refreshments, along with a lot of great conversation and laughter, really brought this first full day at camp to a wonderful conclusion.

Day two, and it’s time to begin getting involved with the what we hope to accomplish on research dives on the reefs, as well as looking at the logistics of setting up some clean up dives on the reefs. While not planned for this visit, we’ll also look at including a beach clean activity on our upcoming trips.
We started with a briefing with representative of QDSM – Qusier Dive Site Management, a local grassroots environmental organization dedicated to the preservation of the beauty and health of the Red Sea reef system along the coast of Southern Egypt.  They explained their programs and core objectives for upcoming week, which include:

Marine Life Surveys
[1] Monitoring marine life on specific reef areas, recording and documenting sightings to measure the abundance and variety of fish and invertebrate populations throughout the year in specific reef locations. The long term goal is to be able to distinguish ecological cycles on these reefs, enabling future identification of specific threats to the ecological balance.

[2] Setting up for the dives preparing equipment and determine areas of research. This will be slates, tape measures, cameras, grids etc.

[3] Complete research dives taking measurements and photographs of the area aimed at the specific tasks.

[4] Analyse the research and record findings.

Reef Clean Dives
[1] Our objective in this phase is to reduce the negative impact of human activity in the seas. Primarily the removal of fishing lines and general garbage from the reef and sea. The briefing included potential hazards from marine life such as fire corals and dangerous marine fish. On certain sites this could include the installation of marker buoys or light weight permanent dive boat moorings.

[2] Set up for the dives preparing equipment and determine areas of cleaning. This will be cutting tools, gloves, collection vessels and land logistics for removal of debris.

[3] Complete Reef Clean Up Dives.

[4] Evaluate the debris collected record findings.

Dive Site Management
[1] This is a combination shore-based & underwater activity, with the key objective being to reduce the negative impact of human activity in the local environment. QDSM has selected a dive site and is seeking ‘sponsors’ the oversee the continued management of what we can acomplish in the initial phase of the program.  The principle actions will be provision and installation of:

  • Road side dive site markers
  • Easy vehicle access to a parking area
  • Permanent sun shelters
  • Waste collection bins with daily evening removal service
  • Dive site map board
  • Dive safety information board
  • Scheduled beach and reef clean ups

[2] We’ll visit several of the selected sites to survey what is required to achieve the objectives, including diving the site to research for producing a detailed map of the site.

[3] Upon our return to base, an action plan will be prepared, which includes recruiting help from the community for the clean up of the beach. In accordance with local regulations, permission is also required from the Coast Guard for erection of any signs or shelters in the beach area.

Our team setting up on the beach at El Makluf dive site

Morning came, and it was time to head out and begin diving in earnest!  Today we planned some shore dives planned, three in all, at Roots Beach, El Makluf, and Abu Hamra sites.  Our dive leader was Moudi, a PADI Staff Instructor for Pharaoh Dive Club, and a registered Egyptian Professional Diver.  The second is the key to shore diving here in the Red Sea, because unlike places like Bonaire, the Coast Guard requires that shore divers are accompanied by a registered guide, and Moudi is a fantastic one at that.  His briefings are first class, preparing us for the dive at hand, and he is extremely adept at locating and pointing out many of the better-camouflaged creatures that inhabit the sea here.  He’s truly an asset on our dives, are we are thankful that Clare & Steve have chosen their staff so carefully.  Our crew brings the gear out to each site for us, and after the diving is complete, they wash, dry and pack the gear for our next excursion.  Truly the definition of Platinum Service!

Shore entry through the reef – El Makluf

Some of the dive site entries are pretty unique here, with an access hole coming in via a cavern from the reef wall face, and then up through the top of the reef.  We walk on out across the reef, and then climb down into the hole, following the pathway out to the open sea. Pretty cool, and pretty different too!  There is marine life aplenty on top of the reef and inside all the cracks and crevices too, so something for your eyes to feast on no matter which direction you turn!  One of the interesting things here is that the brittle stars are all out on top in the reef in direct sunlight, whereas back in the Florida Keys or the Caribbean they hide under rocks all day, only coming out at night.  In fact, if you shine a light on one there, they quickly disappear into the darkness of a hole, but that’s not the case here for sure!  Interesting!

Brittle Star working on it’s tan on top of the reef

A colorful Giant Clam on top of the reef

On all three dives we managed to complete surveys by species and quantity of the reef fish population, and this information was turned into QDSM for incorporation into their marine survey database.  Coupled with the date, time, and conditions under which the counts are taken, these tools prove valuable in establishing a baseline, from which a more thorough understanding of the normal fish population counts and trends though day, the seasons, and even with events such a varying water temperatures can be achieved.  The work being done here closely parallels that which R.E.E.F. (the Reef Environmental Education Foundation), located in Key Largo, Florida, is so actively involved with worldwide.   Indian Valley Scuba has been a REEF Field Station for nearly ten years now, so conducting these sort of fish count surveys is something we’ve grown quite familiar with over the years.  Even so, it’s pretty thrilling when your counts includes all sorts of new species that you have never seen before!

Back at the ranch, it was time for another great dinner, and some after-dinner conversation and laughter before calling it an early night and getting rested up for tomorrows activities!

Surrounded by dolphins…oh my!!

Another bright and beautiful morning beckoned us as we looked out our windows on the flat, calm blue waters of the Red Sea.  Today, we’re heading back to El Qusier harbor, and onto the boat, for a couple of dives in the cavern system that runs all through that area.  Gear on board the mother ship, we kitted up and climbed into the zodiac for a ten minute run to the dive site.  About seven minutes into it though, we were rudely interrupted by an enormous splash directly in front of the boat, causing our driver to promptly back off the throttle.  Splash!  There it goes again!  Dolphins! Three of them, just begging us to stop and play with them!  OK…..hold on that dive site we were headed towards, we need to tend to this matter…now!  Masks on, regulators in mouths, and over the sides we rolled, and sure enough there were our friends waiting for us.  We spent about fifteen minutes hanging with them as they cavorted through and around us, just teasing us with their closeness.  It was early in the day, and they were full of energy, that was obvious!  It looked like it was as much fun for them as it was for us, too.  Finally, they had enough, and as if on cue, they sped off into the blue.  We climbed back on board, got re-organized, and finished the balance of our trip to our dive site, known as Pharaoh’s Tomb.

Our host Steve Rattle getting up close and personal with some friendly dolphins

A great dive, and we headed back to the big boat for a short break and to get ready for our next dive, Fanadir Reef.  We climbed back on board the zodiac, enjoyed the short ride to the reef, and dropped in.  Once we gathered on the bottom, we started down the reef, and no more than five minutes into our exploration, suddenly ‘Swoosh!’ ..we were being buzzed by our three friends from earlier.  Well so much for this reef, our focus now turned on our visitors, or were we visitors to their world?  Matters not, because we were all enjoying each other now.  For over an hour they cavorted with us, mimicking us when we laid on the bottle, or spun upside down, and the circled us with tails kicking up rings of mud around our group, kinda like a game of cowboys & indians.  Cooler than words can convey, just feeling so blessed to be able to share this hour with some of God’s most majestic creatures.  Absolutely awesome!


Stay Posted….Plenty more coming!!!

Frank, where are your fins? And more adventures from the Keys!

Heather & Sue with IVS Diver Extraordinaire, ‘Finless’ Frank Gabriel

Aaah, the Florida Keys…we can never get enough of them!  And the last week in July each year is even more special, as Team Indian Valley Scuba enjoys a full week of diving, fun, and food in America’s Caribbean!  This annual adventure is centered around the annual Florida lobster mini-season, a two-day event held each year on the last contiguous Wednesday and Thursday in July.  This is a special spiny lobster hunting season, open only to recreational sports divers and snorkelers, and it’s a great opportunity to catch some of the delicious crustaceans before the commercial season opens in another week or two.

Our “pre-adventure” actually begins on Saturday, when the first of our divers begin to converge on Key Largo.  Hosted by Dave Hartman, one of the faces of IVS-South, the first arrivals included last year’s reigning ‘Lobster Queen’, Bill Zyskowski, Scott Bruce and his dad, Steve Holak, Heather Hiester, ……..and  “Finless” Frank Gabriel (more on that later!).

The Lobster Queen Bill Z and trip leader Steve H

After an overnight stay at Casa Hartman, they headed out in the eye of an impending storm Sunday morning to dive the Spiegel Grove with Chrissie and the gang from Blue Water Divers.  Two great dives exploring this massive wreck from the inside out, and as they motored back to port, the clouds were closing in.  The weather radar was predicting some big storm activity was brewing, so with the afternoon boat cancelled, and the crew enjoyed a nice early dinner at Shipwreck’s Bar & Grille before heading the 110 miles south to Key West for the night.  As it turns out, the storms never materialized, but it made for a nice relaxing start to a marathon week of diving we had planned. Two and a half hours of beautifully scenic driving later, they arrived in Key West, where they were met with the rest of our advance group, quasi-locals Carlie & Leslie Adams, and representing the western side of the IVS family, Jesica Tyre and Berry Smith from Los Angeles.

Monday started off with the group meeting at Sea-Duction, the rebirth of the former SubTropic dive center, now owned by my friend Mike Ange.  Based in North Carolina, Mike has teaching tec classes in the Keys for years, and has experienced much of the same frustration as we have, with a general lack of support and very few dive centers that take technical diving seriously, or can provide the gasses, tank set-ups, and even rebreather support materials that we need to effectively conduct classes and execute tec dives there.  Til now, only Silent World in Key Largo could be counted on for supporting tec programs, and the owner, Chris Brown, is absolutely first class.

So the gang analyzes their nitrox fills and head out for the day, with the plan being two dips on the Vandenburg, and the third on the Cayman Salvor or Joe’s Tug.  Now on IVS trips we have a tradition, and that is, that the boats we use break down at some point.  Just about every trip photo gallery has a shot or two of a captain or mechanic on his knees, head buried somewhere down the engine hatch.  I’m not sure what this black cloud is that sometimes follows us, and it always makes for good stories, but it is, truly, a tradition.  And today was not going to be any different! 

Dave Hartman taking a turn at steering Seaduction’s boat to the Vandenberg

As Sea-Duction’s boat approached the mooring balls on the ‘Vandie’, the crew prepared the boat hook and their lines to tie in.  Approx 100 yards from teh wreck, the captain shouted out “Sh*t..we have a problem here!”  One of the mates jumped down and pulled the engine hatches off, and, true to tradition, buried his head in the engine compartment.  Seems that the steering failed, and the rudder is not responding to the helm.  Hmmmm……not a a good thing!  

So out come the tools, and now all three of them are in the hatch, and lots of colorful language is coming from the crew.  Our guys are enjoying it, and heck, there doesn;t appear to be a lot of surface current, so maybe we can jump in and swim to the wreck!  Well the crew finally figures it out, and via some big-ass wrenches, a lot of sweating, colorful metaphors, and shouting from the helm to the hatch, they are able to man-handle the rudder and guide the boat to the mooring ball.   The crew ties in, and the diving begins! 

Conditions are perfect, and our group enjoys this fantastic 500+ ft. long wreck and all the penetration and exploration it has to offer.  While the plan was to make only twoi dives here, the challenge with the steering makes the decision to stay for a third an easy one, and everyone is happy with that.  Back to port, with the modified steering system in effect, and while the docking proved to be a bit of a challenge, finally all the lines were tied, and it was time to clean up and head down to Duval Street for an evening of good dinner, a variety of hydrating drinks, people watching and sightseeing.

Tuesday morning and time for a leisurely drive back up the Keys to Tavernier, where we have chartered Conch Republic’s boat for a couple of dives this afternoon.  Gary & Brenda, owners of Conch, are there to greet the group and they get off on time, with the first dive on the wreck of the Eagle.  After that our second visit is to Pickles Reef, a nice location that we rarely visit out of Key Largo due  to the distance.   Another good dive in the logbook, and back to the dock they head.  From there it’s a short hop another ten miles up the road to check in at Amoray Dive Resort, our base of operations for the next six days of this adventure! 

Cathy, Maribel, Reinel & Emanuel on the Amoray Diver

Joining the team there are more of the IVS gang, including Steve Zingale, Shaquanasia Morris, Paul, Quinton & Esther Gehman, Ray Graff, Nick Chiarolanza, Jeff Herber, plus joining us from the Tampa Bay area are Marabel Grajales, Reinel Correia, Cathy Levesque, and Emanuel Martinez, and finally the O’Donnell gang, Rob, Jen, Ryan, Alyson & Kristen .  A great team with one focus for tonight – get some rest and be ready to kick butt in the lobster hunting department tomorrow!

The 4 o’clock alarm comes early on Wednesday morning, and the crew slowly shuffles down to load the boat for the first lobster trip.  We’re shoving off at 5:00 a.m., to be in position and geared up to splash at 5:45, the legal start of mini-season in Monroe County. Another member of the team shows up for the boat, Craig Lloyd, who brought his family down for some vacation time while dad gets in some diving & hunting.  His lovely wife and two beautiful daughters are not divers…..yet…but we’ll work on that! 

The hunting starts off a little slow, and the morning boat only produces 13 keeper bugs over three hour-long dives.  Ruh-roh…might be a lot of salad and bread served up at Friday nights lobster dinner!  The team needs to improve on this for sure!!  We’ve got quite a few rookies on board, and a few ringers, like Lobster Queen Bill Z, but we’re missing some of our best, like Bill’s brother John.  And as part of our “rebuilding year”, we also traded a few of last years players down to the minors, but all in all, our team is having a great time!

Ray, Frank & Bill – lobster clearning crew!

After a short siesta it’s time to get serious and get back out on the hunt!  Tanks are loaded, and the 4 o’clock departure heads out, and with a little extra coaching and mentoring, the team more than doubles the morning take.  Way to go..dinner is looking better already!

Wednesday 4:00 a.m. and the activity begins dockside with some new faces showing up, including Sue Douglass, Judy Mullen, and yours truly.  It’s time to kick this lobster hunting into a higher gear!  Out we head for our morning trip and we put another 40 or so in the cooler…now we’re talking!  Back to the dock, and there’s no rest for the weary, as Steve Holak and I head over to Jules Undersea Lodge for a couple of Open Water checkout dives with newcomer Fred Shue, Nick C,Paul & Quinton G, and the O’Donnell tribe – Ryan, Alyson & Kristen.  Conditions are very nice there, and somewhat surreal as there is a whitish cloud hovering a couple of feet off the dark bottom; really makes for a cool visual effect!  Skills completed, the crew heads back to Amoray and we load up for another three-tank final trip out to secure the main course for Friday night’s dinner. By the end of the night the count is 101 bugs in the cooler, so we’re looking good for dinner with our triple-digit production!  After 14 dives over the past to days, the bed feels really good tonight for some reason!   Friday morning dawns as another absolutely beautiful day in Key Largo – blue skies, no wind, flat seas…this trip has truly been gifted as far as conditions go.  Let’s hope we get three more days of it!  John Reider has arrived during the night, so the team is finally complete.  We head out to the reefs for two shallow dives this morning, and our open water students complete all their required skills with flying colors!  I can’t say how proud it makes me to be part of this positive energy and karma that comes from motivated students and a great instructional staff – these guys really rock my world! 

Heather, Judy, Jen, “Finless” Frank, Berry, Jesica & Dave V hamming it up for the camera!

Esther & Paul Gehman on the Amoray Diver

Nick & Scott on the Amoray Diver

And now, with their official recognition as PADI Open Water Divers, our newly minted graduates enjoy their first deep / wreck / adventure dive on the wreck of the Spiegel Grove.  The conditions remain stellar, and it is a perfect way to launch thier next levels of training… there a strategy at work here?  Meanwhile, the rest of the crew enjoyed some great dives, and of course Dave Hartman led his signature tour  – “The Belly of the Beast” – through the lowest levels of this massive wreck.  Another great day under and on the sea!

This evening is another one of our celebrated annual events – Lobster Dinner at the Key Largo Conch House restaurant.  We have been doing this for five years now, and the owners of the Conch House spend all day preparing our tails, making various dishes of lobster fritters, lobster bisque, broiled tails, and more.  A great dinner with about forty attendees, including the Lloyd family girls, Michelle from Amoray, and a couple of our local Key Largo friends also.  Great night, great food, great company – Life is Good!

Hartman and Michelle at Conch House

Ray and his ladies at the Conch House, while the rest of us scramble to replace the batteries in our AED….just in case!! With Heather, Sue, Judy & Jesica

The O’Donnell family enjoying a great lobster dinner with Team IVS at the Conch House

Jesica & Judy sharing some ocean-inspired body art with us!

I know we’re sounding like a broken record, but again, we are greeted with perfect conditions on Saturday – truly a picture perfect day as we headed out to Molasses Reef for two nice shallow dives.  And what could make the morning even better?  How about Steve Holak celebrating his 500th dive with Indian Valley Scuba this morning!  OK, or even better?  How about Judy & Jesica modeling full body tatt’s for a boatload of admiring eyes!

The afternoon our plans are to re-visit the Spiegel Grove, then go on to the Benwood in preparation for tonight’s night dive.  The teams prepare and brief for their individual group goals and plans for the dive, and final equipment checks are conducted.  Stage bottles are checked, reels and lift bags verified, computers set.  Each team of divers approaches the bow of the Amoray Diver as a group, so they can enter the water one right after the other, and minimize descent and waiting time, (i.e. burning through precious gas reserves), while waiting for the entire team assemble.   Some groups with more experienced divers have planned some slightly more aggressive tours, while some of the others follow Sue D’s “Lame-Oh” tour agenda, staying outside the wreck and taking in the beauty without the risks of penetration.  Sooo, as the Hartman group heads up for a deep, dark tour, one by one they splash, Dave H going in first, followed by Bill Z, and then Frank G.  Funny, but Frank seems to drop a little deeper under the surface than the others on his entry, as if he had less drag to his body. Hmmmm….as he finally surfaces and begins to kick over to the line to join the others, he does not seem to be making much headway….perhaps because he has NO FINS ON!  Yikes…..perhaps he took that part of Dave’s briefing, about using your hands inside the wreck and not kicking with your fins to stir up silt, a little too literally!    Not to worry Frank, this little faux paus will be a secret just between us…and the entire internet!!  Yes, you know it when the group shouts out almost in unison, “That’ll make the blog!” 

After “Finless Frank’s” entry, the rest of the dive goes well, and everyone else enters the water with ALL their gear on.  Rob O’Donnell completes his ‘very’ Advanced Open Water training with stage bottle drills, running wreck reels and wreck penetration, and even helping Dave V nail a big lionfish.  A great dive, nearly an hour of bottom time with the big tanks most of us are wearing, and finally we head over to the Benwood.  Frank is checked closely by the crew prior to his giant stride, just in case, you know.  The dive here is absolutely magical, from a giant baitball of silverside minnows, to the hungry teams of groupers coordinating feeding attacks, to the huge snook hanging out there, to the cruising nurse sharks over the wreck, just absolutely magical.

The evening  found us back at the site of the Benwood for a true night dive.  The sun had set, and the sea was black; no “twilight” dive for this crew!  Into the ocean we splashed, and down the line we went.  Magical moment #1 – a turtle swims over to us at the bottom of the line and checks us out…you just know this is going to be a great dive!  The best part is that ten year old Kristen O’Donnell is leading us, with no fear or apprehension at all!  And the turtle visits us again during the dive, just cruising with us and allowing the divers to gently touch and stroke its shell, making no attempt to avoid or move away….really cool cooperative animal interaction!

Most of the troops head over to the one of our favorite haunts, the Paradise Pub, for some Cheeseburgers in Paradise, a few pitchers of beer, and a boatload of laughter and story telling that is part of every great IVS trip. Including, of course, the tale of Finless Frank!  And of course, the thing that warms my heart the most……folks planning their next IVS dive trip!!  The stamina and energy of our divers never ceases to amaze me, and half the group stays and closes the bar.  And….they all make it out on the morning boat!

Our last full day of diving is Sunday, and we are not disappointed with the conditions.  More blue skies, more flat seas, and two great reef dives to kick off the morning.  We head back in, grab a bit of lunch, and head out for our ‘graduation dives’, a visit to the Duane and a final tour of the Spiegel Grove.  As we motor south to the site of the Duane, we pass the balls marking her sister ship, the USS Bibb, which is laying on it’s side about 1/4 mile from the Duane.  The balls are absolutely lifeless in the water, with no indication of current at all.  We can’t pass on the chance to dive this wreck, as we rarely get conditions like this when we vsiit it. So, scratch the Duane…. we’re diving the Bibb today!   Of course, no good change in plans goes without some whining, but I step up and help everyone who just listened intently to Dave Hartman’s Duane briefing…. “take everything you just heard, and turn it sideways!”  OK.. briefing done..let’s dive!   

Soooo, I am diving solo on this one, as is Bill Z, as both of us are carrying Lionfish spears and looking to score.  So let’s just set the stage here…this is a 300 ft long wreck, intact, laying on it’s side.  It’s a former Coast Guard cutter, so it has (1) pointy end (the bow), and (1) not-so-pointy end, with a couple of huge 20 ft diameter propellers and rudders (the stern).  It has exactly two mooring balls on it, one at each end of the wreck.  Just saying…..more on this in a few minutes!  So, as we  drop down to the wreck, the visibility is forever, and I tap Bill and point out how cool the props and rudders look as we approach them.  He sees them, or at least I think he does, and we continue down, hit the side of the wreck and separate to hunt for our quarry.  Nice dive, cool wreck to see and for those of us who have dove the  Duane numerous times, it is very interesting to see the difference between the two identical wrecks in terms of growth, marine life, fish populations, especially that the two are just a little over 1,000 ft from each other.  So….fast forward…..I nail another lionfish, and actually show it to Bill as we pass each other, and finally my 35 minutes at 130 ft max is up….time to ascend and rid the body of a little excess nitrogen.  I’m alone now, so I swim over the props, and grab the morning line, and as I turn towards the surface, I can enjoy the view of all our other divers on the line doing nice deep stops and safety stops.  Well OK, most of our other divers. 

Capt. Rob & Mate Alysa getting ready to toss the coin and figure out which one is going to swim the rescue float out to wayward Bill Z

It seems that when Bill decided to come up, he also headed to the mooring line, and began his ascent.  He was diving with a larger tank than most of the others, so his first clue something was amiss was the fact that no one was already on the line, as he expected to find.  Hmmmm.. well at this point he was committed, too far away from the “proper” end of this wreck , so he completed his ascent, and surfaced 300 ft behind the Amoray Diver…about exactly the length of the Bibb!  So, much to Bill’s chagrine, Capt Rob and the crew unroll the 300 ft. rescue line on the boat and they swim it out to Bill.  You know what is going on inside his head……”Darn it…this is going to make the blog!”  And here it is, proving him right.  It should be noted, that Bill gave it a lot of thought, and has an official story – and he’s sticking to it!  It seems that he set a personal goal of having a mooring ball named in his honor on every wreck that IVS visits!  Move over “Z-Ball” (named after Bill and his brother John on the Spiegel), and the “C-Ball”, named in honor of Csaba Lorinczy on another two-ball wreck on the St. Lawrence Seaway.   

After the laughter finally dies down, we motor over to the Spiegel for one last fantastic tour through the wreck.  Berry Smith wants a little adrenalin rush, so he joins me and we drop right down five decks through hatchways, and spend nearly 30 minutes on a long penetration with nary a bit of outside light (or escape path) until we finally emerge near the stern of the wreck.  Everyone else comes up smiling too, enjoying the fantastic conditions on our favorite underwater funhouse.  Very cool way to wrap up a great week of diving!  Time to rinse gear, get one last night of rest, and head for home to get ready for our next IVS trip!

The end…..for now…we’ll be back!!

Breaking News – Indian Valley Scuba invades Bonaire – again!!

Posted by Steve Holak

If it’s June, then it must be time for Team IVS to head down to the southern Caribbean and visit our friends on the lovely island of Bonaire!  And this weekend is that time, as 36 Indian Valley Scuba divers travel to this gem of an island for a week of fantastic diving, great friendship, delicious food, and beautiful views.

Manatee Madness – Crystal River, here we come!

And so it begins, the 2012 Indian Valley Scuba season of diving!!  We’re starting the year off in traditional fashion with a trip to wrestle, er, observe the manatees who are enjoying the warm waters of central Florida, along with visiting some of the rivers and springs there also.  These lovable critters congregate each winter in the warm-ish waters of the natural springs located in this area while waiting for the ocean to warm back up.  Come spring they head off to cruise the seas, returning once again late in the year, when the temperatures start to fall, to their winter homes in Florida.  Kinda like a lot of our more senior friends and neighbors, eh?

Our kick-off trip roster includes Tom Brennan, Mairead and JJ Twohig, John Jones, and the Beaver brothers, Keith and Craig.  Yours truly had the honor of leading this crew on a fun, laid back adventure offering a great variety of diving not typically seen on most IVS trips.  Our base of operations will be the Best Western Hotel and Resort in Crystal River, FL, conveniently located in the middle of all the cool diving we plan to enjoy!  Sitting right on the banks of the Crystal River, we are literally on top of some of the greatest concentrations of manatees to be found in the Sunshine State.

Now some factoids on the focal animal of our trip, the manatee:  Manatees (family Trichechidae, genus Trichechus) are large, fully aquatic, mostly herbivorous marine mammals sometimes known as sea cows. There are three accepted living species of Trichechidae, representing three of the four living species in the order Sirenia: the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis), the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), and the West African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis). They measure up to 13 feet long, weigh as much as 1,300 pounds,and have paddle-like flippers, complete with toe nails like th. The name manatí comes from the Taíno, a pre-Columbian people of the Caribbean, meaning “breast”.  Yes, your guess is as good as mine on that name origin, but who are we to argue with the facts?

But first, we need to get there, and this is usually where all the fun begins!  Mairead and her dad, enjoying a bit of spring break from her studies at Slippery Rock University, enjoyed a leisurely drive down, visiting all sorts of neat places along the way.  The Beavers also drove, as this is the starting point of their adventure, heading from here to Key West, then on to visit Amoray Dive Center in Key Largo, before heading back to reality and the colder temps of the north.  John flew into Tampa, and my plans were to catch a 6:30 a.m. flight out of Philadelphia and have now-Florida resident Tom Brennan pick me up at Orlando airport and head west to meet the others.  Seems everyone was on time with their travel plans, well, almost everyone, as I called Tom in the morning and said he could wait a little to pick me up, instead of 1:30 it’s gonna be 3:00 now.  “No problem”, he says, “I have plenty of work to do here at home today”.  Bad idea to share that info Tom!  So, as one might imagine, the next call from me to Tom is “Make it 4:30”, followed by the “Make it 6:15 – that’s my final answer and I’m sticking to it!” call.  So, finally, Tom gets a chance to get caught up on work, and I finally arrive in the Land of Mickey to begin our fun.

Arrival in uneventful, and cannot even comment on the state of security along my journey (cause I think they are watching me!).  But I arrive unscathed, un-probed, and not too manhandled, to find Tom awaiting me outside baggage claim.  Great start to this trip; let’s hope it keeps on coming!

The hotel is pretty darn nice, and the location is superb.  Check-in is good, everyone’s happy with their rooms, and the first night is a winner!  We agree to gather at breakfast at eight to head over to Adventure Dive Center for our first day of fun – a manatee swim in Three Sisters Spring, a dive in Kings Spring, and then an afternoon of drift diving down the scenic Rainbow River.  We checked into the dive center, completed all our necessary paperwork, and watched the mandatory Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission video on manatee interaction.  From there we walked across the street (almost as convenient as diving at Amoray!) to the boat and loaded our gear for the morning.

Now yes, we are in Florida, but you sure would not know it from the chilly 50 degree air this morning, accompanied by a pretty nice breeze.  Brrrrr!  Well it’s a short ride across the bay to Three Sisters, and there are a few boats there already this morning.  We slip into the 72 degree water silently, armed only with snorkels, as the state has recently decided scuba diving is a no-no around manatees.  The good news is that the spring is literally overflowing with manatees, of all sizes and flavors, lots of moms & babies, sleeping, cruising around, checking us out, doing all the fun things that manatees enjoy doing.  The spring’s average depth is about four feet, with a few holes that drop down to nearly 20 ft.  The water is amazingly clear, and the manatees are amazingly active this morning, swimming around, checking us out, rolling over for us to tickle their bellies, and clearly not intimidated by our presence.  One big one takes a strange sort of liking to me, and comes in for one tickling session after another.  At one point she (he?) swims up, wraps a flipper around my arm, pulls me close, and puts its big lovable head in the crook of my arm, just sitting there like a puppy, as I gently scratch its head…kinda like something out of a Jurassic Park love scene.  Yes, strange animal interaction, but it was good for me, and left me thinking afterwards ….why do I suddenly have this urge for a cigarette?

OK, ok…enough of those thoughts!!   Finally, after about an hour and a half with the animals, we swim back out to boat where Captain Ned awaits, and we climb back aboard.  The breeze has picked up and my oh my, it is nippy now!  Sitting there shivering in our wetsuits, we make a unanimous decision to pass on the scuba dive in Kings Spring, and head back to the dock to warm up.  Yes, I passed on a dive…..but trust me…when the total temperature of the air and water combined is less than 120 degrees, you can do the math…..we were cold!!

Back on shore, we got out of our wet things and enjoyed a nice lunch at ‘Taste of Philly’, the most authentic cheesesteak source in the south.  Owned by a couple of ex-Philadelphians, the place is properly decorated with all the correct sports team logos (Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, 76’ers) and the accent by the staff is genuine south Philly.  Good food, good people, and we’re properly warmed up for the afternoons activities as we pile back into the cars and drive north to Rainbow River.  There, we meet Dave Middlestadt, the other owner of Adventure Dive Center, and we launch the boat for a drift dive down this scenic river.

The Rainbow River is the flowpath for the waters eminating from Rainbow Springs, to the tune of approx 500 million gallons per day.  Yikes, that’s a lot of water!  As a result the river is consistently clear and 74 degrees year round.  We meet at K P Hole State Park, and get a chance to chat with the rangers as we get ready.  Dave launches the boat, we pile aboard, and motor up to the limit of the river, right where the springs begin.  Final gear checks complete, we slip in to enjoy a 90 minute drift dive back towards the launch area.  There’s quite a bit of life in this river, alligator gar, turtles, various species of fish, and plenty of undulating eel grass to cruise by, or in some cases, through!  Today is a chance for John to observe marker buoy handing procedures on a drift dive as he prepares to try his hand at this skill as part of completing his PADI Drift Diver specialty certification.  We enjoy a great dive, and finally it’s time to pull the boat and head home.  Rumor has it that the Beavers have discovered a local Irish pub that we must visit, so we pack the cars and head back to town.

Now I’m thinking that I have been at this place in the past, but once we realize where we’re heading you can throw that memory out the window.  Sure enough, it is a real Irish pub, chock full of real Irish brews, and all the color and pageantry you’d expect in a real Irish pub … located in Crystal River, FL!  But the staff are great, and even I find something I can drink there.  We enjoy sampling a few of the local flavors, and then walk down the street to the Fat Cat restaurant.  This place could have been called the Twilight Zone, in honor of our waitress Savannah, who clearly was overwhelmed with having to serve a table of seven..all by herself!  At first humorous, then not so funny, to finally annoying with nothing coming out in the order it was intended, we managed to have a good time in spite of it all.  With all of today’s activities we call it an early night and head back to our bunks to retire.

Saturday dawns bright and not quite as cool as yesterday, so that is a plus.  Today are plans are to head up to Silver Springs to drift dive down the Silver River, a protected scenic waterway that is untouched by development along it’s entire length.  Typical of a true wilderness area, it has all the stuff you might expect to see in the wild, including monkeys and alligators.  The good news for the divers is that the alligators don’t digest food well in the colder months, so we get to taunt them as we swim by, knowing they are just thinking “Come back in a few months, sucker!”  But first we need to meet the boat and the captain, both of which are supposed to be sitting here awaiting our arrival.  Hmmmm, I am thinking, wonder what’s up with that?  So I call the shop, and suddenly I hear the guitar rifts of Jimmy Page playing in the back of my head to the tune of Robert Plant singing Led Zeppelin’s ‘Communication Breakdown’ ….  it seems that somehow in yesterday afternoons planning session the deal was I was going to swing by the dive shop this morning for tanks and that would be the signal for the captain to drive the boat over to meet us in Silver Springs.  Yikes….talk about dropping the proverbial ball here!  The upside is that the park where we are is beautiful and it’s a ver nice day, so the rest of the gang gets to enjoy a little early morning leisure while Tom and I high-tail it back to the shop to load some tanks in his car!  

We return and find the crew and the boat all set and ready for us, so finally, we load and get this show on the road!   We head about 4 miles upstream, drop in, and enjoy another very nice drift dive.  John takes the lead with the marker buoy, and quickly comes to grips with the realization that you cannot swim under a downed tree while dragging a surface marker.  He’s a quick study on that concept, and leads us down the river, taking in some very pretty sights along the way.  Finally he and Tom are chilled, so he passes the buoy off to me, cause Mairead still has about 1,500 psi left in her tank and figures we still have some diving to do.  Another walking talking pony bottle in the IVS family; she’ll be a popular choice as a dive buddy on some of our Spiegel Grove adventures!  In fact, as we drift along, I am wondering how long can she possibly last, cause my breaths are becoming increasingly difficult to draw.  Not to worry, we’re in five to ten feet of water, so a rescue scenario is not likely.  Finally, I signal to her, with a slashing sign across my throat, that she has won the longetivity contest!  I check and she still has nearly 1,000 psi to my zero….thank goodness no one will know about this…whooops!  It’s in the blog!  Another great day followed by another great gathering for dinner as Dave & Carl from Adventure Diving join us at Cody’s Roadhouse for some great laughter and good grub too.

Sunday now and it’s time to visit some caverns, so we load up some tanks (not forgetting them a second time!) and drive up to Blue Grotto.  We check in and start to set up on the benches near the cavern entrance.  It’s pretty obvious who the locals are and who’s from the north, as we’re walking around in t-shirts and diving wet, while most of the folks are huddled around campfires, bundled up in boat coats, and diving in drysuits.  Some thin blood in these here parts, I am thinking.  We watch the obligatory video, sign the waivers, and I give everyone the nickel tour of the cavern entrance area.  Suits on, we walk on down to the waters edge and step into the refreshing 73 degree pool.  First matter at hand is a weight check on the platforms, and once everyone is looking pretty good on their buoyancy, we head down into the edge of the cavern area.  In spite of the big buildup in the video presentation, it is a very short dive.  We visit the suspended breathing bell on our way out, and finally surface again near the dock.  With plenty of air left in our tanks, we head back in for the longer tour. past “Peace Rock” and get to venture on the limits of the light zone.  Couple of nice, although short, dives, and we’re ready to head to our next destination, Devils Den.

Conveniently located nearly across the street, Devils Den is a completely different set up, with a friendly laid back staff, nice picnic area, and subterranean cavern entrance.  There is no accessible surface water here, as the diving is within a collapsed dome that lies about 40 feet below the ground.  There’s a hole in the ceiling to allow ambient light to enter, so it is not considered a cave environment.  We unload our gear from the cars and Mairead’s dad JJ rolls into action as our personal valet parker, moving the cars from the loading zone ot the parking area.  Nice!  

It’s about this moment when we feel that we’re not too far from our local quarry, Dutch Springs.  We observe a fellow half-wearing a drysuit having words with the manager, and then she walks over towards us.  You can see by the look in her eyes that there is a “situation” that needs to be addressed.  It seems that the table that we are sitting at, one of fourteen identical tables in the picnic grove, has been ‘reserved’ by a dive shop from North Carolina, and they are upset that we got there before them (yes, at the crack of noon) and started setting up on that particular table.  Truthfully, we are having a hard time containing our laughter over the incident, and we select another table, moving our gear all of about ten feet from the first table.  Friggin’ amazing, but that is part of what makes this sport so colorful….. people like this!

The dives (we do two) at Devils Den are pretty neat, and it is an experience you are not likely to get elsewhere.  We finally wrap it up, and head back, enjoying our final dinner at Crackers Restaurant next to the hotel, with the NFL playoff games on the big screens.  Another wonderful trip in the memory books, with great friends, good diving, and an excellent time for all!  We’ll be back for sure!

We’re off to see the Queen!

It seems like forever since my eldest daughter Kristen and I took a road trip, and our experience celebrating her high school graduation in Japan will always shine brightly in my memory.  But before we get too caught up waxing on the past, it’s high time for us to make some fresh, new international travel memories!

For the past two years now, K has been enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, and after taking the fall semester off to intern with locally-based Anthropologie clothing company, it’s time for her to return to the books this spring as she enjoys a semester abroad.  She’ll be continuing her pursuit of a degree in Film Studies (yes, hear me groan on that one!) with minors in English and Women’s Studies (yes, that was two more groans you heard) at King’s College in London, UK.  For the record, I am still holding out hope that there is still time to turn the focus back and salvage that degree in International Business that her mom and I sent her off to St. Louis to achieve two years ago!

OK, now that I have cleared the air with my personal feelings on career-building decision making, let’s move on to the adventure at hand.  Her classes will be starting early in the first week of January, so my little darling has a bit of a mission in front of her to get prepared, and to add to her stress, everything is happening over the holidays.  The good news is that dad is always up for a road trip, and what better way to ensure Kristen gets off to a great start in this continuing education process (wait….film studies???) than to be there and help her navigate through any logistical challenges that may arise.  It’s her first time in Europe since she was 2 years old, so lots of research was necessary to get things squared away.  We’ll be flying on the 31st of December, and celebrating New Years somewhere over the Atlantic.  Of course the downside of this timing is that poor Michele will be quietly ringing in the New Year with me in spirit alone, but my confidence is high that I’ll make it up to her with a special celebration when I return on Wednesday.

So our adventure starts this morning, and here is where it is obvious that Kristen has inherited a few of her mother’s genes, at least in the travel department.  Our flight from Philadelphia is at 1:20 in the afternoon, so you know I am doing the math, baggage check-in cutoff, time for the parking shuttle, 31 miles down the interstate, yep, we can do this by leaving at 11:15 and really get a good adrenalin buzz going to start the trip and end the year!   But noooooo, that’s not happening today, as K mandates a 9:00 a.m. departure from Harleysville to “not be rushed” at the airport.  “Not be rushed?” I ask incredulously, “where’s the fun in that?”  But she is not deterred, so I begrudgingly agree, and a 9:00 departure it is.

Well of course you know there would be some interpretation in that schedule, so she’s already called me twice and is standing there tapping her foot when I pick her up at 9’ish.  We load her four bags in the van, and start down the road, but wait; I need to make a stop at the bank.  OK, that done, wait, I need to now stop at a second bank.  OK, banking completed, I am out of places to stop, so finally, at 9:58, we are actually heading towards Philadelphia International.  We get to the SmartPark lot and the parking lot Gods are smiling at us, with the very first parking spot open and awaiting us, ensuring maximum exposure for the van advertising while I am gone.  Hmmm…interesting sign, could this trip be blessed in some way?  No, it gets better, as Floyd, one of the regular drivers there, waves and says “Hold on Mr. Valaika, I’m almost done washing the van for you”.  So he pulls up in a squeaky-clean shuttle van, and transports Ms. Kristen and I in our own private shuttle to the airport.

And as we pull up to the Delta terminal, who is there but my good friend and long time Skycap Harold, along with his sidekick Benny, and they come running over to the van and get our bags moving towards check-in.  He asks where the 200 pounds of scuba gear is hiding, and I share our travel plans with him.  What a great guy and a good friend to have in the ‘business’ Harold is.  But wait, for some reason, my over-packing daughter has exceeded the baggage limit for this expedition, and Harold says “geez, I’m not sure here, but according to the computer, it looks like you are going to have to pay an excess baggage fee”.  Well fate continues to shine on us this morning, as Melinda, another friend and one of Delta’s finest gate agents, walks up to wish me a Happy New Year, and Harold tells her of the predicament and she smiles, and says “I’ll take care of this”.  Minutes later, all fees are waived, and now I am really feeling that either this is truly a gifted trip, or, like the proverbial “calm before the storm”, there is some major bombshell about to explode!  Clearly, with the early departure from home, no scuba gear in tow, and an adrenalin level of zero, this is not a normal trip for the Dave-ster in any case!  And we are still over two hours early for our flight!

With the bags checked, we head to security, and I know this is where it will get testy.  Ever since Kristen attempted to sneak her knitting needles and scissors through Salt Lake City security a few years ago, I have been sensitive to her to fully understanding the mentality (and ineptitude) of the Blue-Shirted Army that is charged with keeping America’s skies safe.  Well as a predictable as a lottery drawing with only one ticket in the bowl, guess who gets grabbed for the ‘random second level security screening’?  If your answer was a Valaika, then you’re a winner!  But, get this….it is not me, but my eldest princess who clearly has the look of an international terrorist about her.  So they pull her aside, give her a cursory review, never bothering to ask if she had bags, since I had swept them all off the belt, and we are allowed to pass.  America is safer for sure, and I’m more comfortable flying next to her!

What are we going to do with all this extra time?  Well the Delta Sky Club is calling our names, and we head in, stopping to wish long-time staffer Angela, who keeps teasing me with wanting to learn to dive, a Happy New Year.  She asks where I am heading, and I introduce Kristen to her and share our travel plans, and then amazingly, the entire staff at the front desk blows me away with their familiarity with Kings College, the school K is heading to, and they start talking about the award-winning choir, the school grounds, the famous chapel, and more facts and details than I could ever have expected.  Utterly amazing, and just further proof of what a small world we all live in.  Finally, we’re inside, and we settle down in a quiet area, and K, who celebrated her 21st birthday in September, wants to make herself a drink.  Well she walks up to the self-service bar, and I watch as she is a bit dumbfounded, looking at the automatic drink dispensers and the impressive line up of inverted bottles of libations.  So, like a good dad, I give her the quick skinny on bartending and the proper use of the equipment and technology, and before you know it, she is mixing up her gin & tonics like a pro!  And the best part?  This bar is FREE!

Several rounds later, it’s finally time to board, and we head down to the gate.  We’re whisked to the front of the line, saunter down the jetway, and board our plane and jet off to JFK in New York for our European connecting flight.  A short and uneventful flight later, we touch down in the Big Apple and entertain ourselves in the airport for a few hours before we board for Heathrow.  Last American dinner for K for the next eight months, and she savors her french fries, knowing that the “chips” they try to pass off as fries in England won’t compare to the real McCoy!  A little more quiet time allows us to go over our marathon touring plans, and we’ve got a checklist of the places we plan to hit over the next two and a half days:  Stonehenge, Salisbury, Brighton on the beach, Windsor Castle, Oxford, the white cliffs of Dover, and finally the Imperial War Museum in London (thank you Kristen!).  There’ll be no resting on this trip, and we are pretty pumped up about our adventure.  Our notes are complete, maps are laid out, and we enjoy one last round of libations as we await our boarding call in the Sky Club.

Finally, it’s time…. and once again it’s great to be in front of the line!  We walk on board and are shown our upgraded seats – the new upgraded Economy Comfort seating with 50% more recline and plenty of extra legroom, along with some other benefits in flight – OK so it’s not going to be too bad flying with the common folks tonight!  Woo hoo!

Dinner is served up, and we enjoy some more quality bonding time as I realize how sad it is that she is heading away for eight months – I’m gonna miss my little girl!  We wish each other a happy New Year as we pass through some time zone over the Atlantic, and then grab a little naptime before our arrival at 6:30 in the morning.

Once on the ground, we taxi up without delay, disembark, and pass through immigration with nary a hitch.  It should be noted, that when Kristen identified her reason for the visit to study, the border control officer had to review her paperwork from school and fill out a few forms.  He got to chatting with K, asking her about school and career, and then got to the line on his form where her area of study needed to be entered.   So she told him that she was majoring in Film Study (yes, I groan again) and the guy rolls his eyes says “Really?  Film study?”  I break out laughing, and he asks if that is something you do with a video camera and YouTube, not sure you need a college for that.  He is great, and Kristen gets into it too, finally consenting that the four classes she will be taking during this study abroad are all pretty lame.  At least she’s honest about this!  Of course she had to then tell him about her two minors, English and Women’s Issues, and it just kept getting better.  Funny how “human” a border control agent can be in another country – you’d never get that from the Blue Shirts in America.  Sad, but true.   He even answered a few questions I had about some folks they had in a special corral there – you’d never get that sort of honest disclosure from the TSA.  We finish our business here, grab our bags, pass through Customs, and exchange a small pile of Ben Franklins for the local currency of choice, Pounds Sterling.  The feeling that this trip is blessed just continues to surround us as we head out to grab the shuttle bus to Advantage Car Rental. They share the lot with Hertz so onto the Hertz bus we go, and the driver takes right off with us, another private limo –like experience for my little girl and I.  And the driver cannot be helpful enough, as he shares a lot of local tips and suggestions with us on the way to the lot.  As we pull up to the Advantage gate, he says, “Wait just a moment” and jumps off to run up and see if the office is open yet – it is not!  He runs back to inform us, then tells us to wait another moment, and sure enough, here comes the Advantage guy to open up his office.  The amazing part is that the shuttle driver is a Hertz employee and is just going out of his way to be helpful to two non-customers!  I’m starting to love these people!

Now I use the term “office” kinda loosely to describe the Advantage Car Rental facility.  Keep in mind that Advantage is sort of a second (or maybe third) tier rental car company, so the “office” is in fact a panel truck, with a generator, sliding side door and steps to get in, and a little counter and a sofa inside.  The employee fires up the generator, and suddenly we have lights…then the generator stops and we don’t.  He repeats this a dozen more times while we are trying to get our rental squared away.  First problem – they do not have a record of our rental although it is confirmed through Orbitz and in spite of the fact that I have all my paperwork.  Second problem is – they are out of cars!  Suddenly the “gifted” part of this trip appears to be unraveling a little.

The agent is essentially worthless, offering nonsensical suggestions about what we should do to resolve this – and I realize that we are in a bit of a pickle here.  I am standing here with a confirmed reservation in my hand for a nice sized car and a great rate, but that means nothing here, as he has neither the reservation nor a car for me anyhow.  And worse, we don’t have transportation and we are standing on the corner of the Hertz lot, and Hertz is historically the most expensive car rental company out there when I am searching for quotes.  But we’re tired and our options are limited, so we load our bags on a cart and with the slumped shoulders of a man defeated, I walk over to the Hertz office to see what we can do.

Jirrana, a very friendly agent, greets us and I try to explain the situation to her.  “Of course I can help you out”, she says, “Just give me your license and credit card to get started”.  “Hey before we get into that, how about we look at the quote I have here”, I say, “and see what we can to match or beat this number”.  “Should not be a problem”, she assures me, as she punches away on her keyboard.

Now I know most of us have seen more than our fair share of Hertz commercials, where the punch line for the guy who rented from “the other company” is always ….”Not exactly”.  Well guess what – Jirrana’s hard work and effort produced a rental contract for me that was twice the price of what I had from Orbitz, and for a car two sizes smaller.  I’d call that … “Not exactly.”  She said that is the best she could do, and in her sole opinion, it was a very good price.  I chuckle, and ask if she has Wi-Fi here in the office, so I can go on line and search for a quote.  No, she does not.  OK, can I use a computer here, since the office is completely empty on New Years morning?  No, I cannot.  Nice strategy, but I am not done.  I am really feeling that fate is no longer smiling on this trip.

Of course, my cell phone won’t connect to the Internet here, but I do have five bars, so I call back the states and wake Michele up at 2 o’clock in the morning, and get her to go on line to Orbitz and get me a new quote for a car while I am here. She does and we find one available from SIXT Car Rental for actually less than what I had originally gotten from Orbitz, so I tell her to go ahead and book it.  That done, I walk back up to Jirrana and ask if they would not mind giving me a ride down the block to SIXT, and of course, the answer is no, they cannot do that, they need to take me back to the airport terminal and then I can take the SIXT bus to their lot.  I say “Fine, thank you for everything”, and I am putting my paperwork away and getting ready to walk out to the shuttle when Iwana, another Hertz staffer, walks out from the back and introduces herself as the manager and asks if she can do anything.  I give her the story, and tell her what I am about to do, and she says, “Wait, I think we can make this happen”.  Now bear in mind that I have a $114 quote from SIXT in hand, and the Hertz on-line quote for the same car was $482.  Major, major difference, but heck, I’m game if she is.  So I follow her to her desk, we get chatting, I ask about her unique name, turns out she is Polish, she asks about my surname, I tell her I am Lithuanian, she breaks into a broad smile and says, “So is my boyfriend!  His family is from Vilnius.”   Well lo and behold that is where my grandfather came from, so suddenly the business barriers are breaking down left and right, and when all is said and done, I have an upgraded car for the same $114 price that SIXT quoted.  Amazing to find a little piece of Tijuana right here in London, ready to barter prices on rental cars!  K & I thank our new Lithuanian connection, load up the car, and head to our hotel to check in.

We pull out of the lot, with the “remember – drive on the left side” mantra ringing through my head, and we pull into the hotel lot a short while later.  Too early to get a room, we leave our bags with the concierge, change shirts and undies, and head out to our first destination – Windsor Castle.  First though we need to grab something to eat, and there is a McDonalds right there across the street, so I pop an illegal U-turn and suddenly we’re there!  We pull in the drive thru and immediately recognize that the woman in the car in front of us is having way too difficult a time placing her order.   Finally she gets past the ordering screen and moves forward, so we pull up and order a diet coke for dad and porridge with jam for K – something unique to the UK McDonalds.  Meanwhile, the afore-mentioned woman is having difficulties at the payment window, and finally, she gets into an argument with the guy giving her the order.  The manager apologizes for our delay, and suggests that it seems she is still celebrating New Years with a good buzz still going strong.  Needless to say, I’m glad to see her turn in the opposite direction of where we are heading.  Some people, eh?

OK, time to head off to the castle!  But first, I need to comment on our car.  It’s a Volkswagen Polo, diesel, five speed manual transmission, with the steering wheel on the right side.  It’s a blast to drive, although with the very short throw on the shifter and the left hand shifting, I manage to stall it a few times by trying to start out in third gear.  Getting in and out is a bit of a challenge, as this model was designed around someone a bi more compact than my 6’2”, 270# frame.  But we manage, and we have wheels, so all is good.  Now the highway system is something else, with a distinct lack of road signs, and a somewhat confusing (to a Yank) pattern of overhead signs on their equivalent of our interstate system.  But the best part?  They have round-a-bouts, hundreds and hundreds of them, so this really adds to the thrill of the drive!  Now while this feature might intimidate a lesser soul, I was born and raised in New Jersey the state that invented the traffic circle, so I felt right at home as we zipped in and around each one.  Of course, Kristen screaming, “Dad, you don’t have the right of way” as I accelerated into the passing traffic didn’t help my concentration, but we managed to survive each one, unscathed.  Can’t say that for the other drivers, but it was good for the tourists!  And even better, we opted to have Kristen learn her UK geography by using real maps, you know, the things you fold up in the glove box, and she just did fantastic in her navigation, learning the lay of the land at the same time.  Every trip with Dad is a learning experience, whether she wants one or not!

Well 70 miles and a couple of missed turns later, we park the car in downtown Windsor and walk up to the castle gates.  To say the place is a bit overwhelming is hardly doing it justice – this is medieval construction project on major steroids!  We head in, get our tickets, and opt for the self guided tour, and spend the next four hours just walking around this place, getting more amazed at every corner we turn.  The neatest part is that this is a working castle, not a museum, so all the massive dining halls, meeting rooms, exhibition halls, and galleries are really used on a regular basis, and the Queen Mother spends nearly four months a year in residence here, including extended weekends nearly every month, and a month or more in March and April – very cool.  Of course everything is much bigger than real life, but the amount of artwork, collections and displays truly leaves you in awe.  There is a huge display of clothing donated to the royal family over the years, and Kristen recognized so many of the names and designers I was amazed.  Ditto on the artwork, as she knew more facts and trivia about the artists than some of the castle staff did.  I was pretty dang proud to be in her company as she truly immersed herself in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.  And the staff was tremendously helpful, answering all the ‘deeper than the average tourist’ sort of questions I usually come up with on a tour like this, such as who are these people that live here (retired soldiers, rank of Major & above, who were awarded the Blue Garter for service to the country), or why are these bathrooms so big (because they get 8,000 plus visitors a day in the summer), or what are these Buckingham Palace-type guards actually guarding here (nothing, they are really ceremonial as the security is handled by all the police with the submachine guns in clear view), or who the heck had all the time and money to build this unbelievable dollhouse in the Queen’s apartment (it was a gift from the nobles…proving that political favoritism was active even back in the early 20th century), and finally, what’s with all the cannons and arrow-shooting slits – was this fort ever really attacked? (Yes, twice, both times by local barons and their followers revolting over taxes and other royal inequities – go figure!).  So we walked away with much learned and a really deep appreciation of the professionalism and knowledge of the staff here, which was proving to be the case nearly every place we stopped on this adventure.

Our plans after that were to head to Oxford and tour that area, but with the rain starting to fall, the sun going down, and me fading from the long over night flight, that thought of driving another 80 miles round trip and heading back in the dark is probably not the greatest idea, so we opt to call it a day and head back to the hotel.  I am hoping I can find someplace local that will be showing the Eagles game tonight on TV!

Well let me be the first to report that US football is not held in as nearly a high regard as that other form of football, so needless to say, none of the local pubs were showing the Birds whooping up on the Redskins tonight, but still good to end the season with another win and with the Birds finishing ahead of the Cowboys in the division!  That was enough fun for today so it’s off to catch some beauty rest before another big day tomorrow.

The weather forecast had predicted rain all day today, but once again, the gods were smiling upon us and we awoke to a bright sunny blue sky and fifty degree weather – perfect for a day of touring more of this beautiful country!  In the spirit of the poet Robert Frost, we’ve got miles to go before we sleep today.

But first things first, it’s out of the hotel parking lot (remember…left side, left side, left side!) and another quick U-turn to head into the local Mickie D’s for another porridge / jam / diet coke order. Kristen’s all over figuring out the myriad of coins and paper bills here (think Monopoly money) and we quickly settle up, and as I’m given my change, I suddenly feel ‘Six pence, none the richer!’  Sorry, couldn’t resist.

The first destination on today’s list is the the Royal Pavilion, located about 80 miles southeast of London in the sea side city of Brighton, ranked as one of the top 10 city beaches in the world by major travel guides.  The drive down is lovely, with changing landscapes all along our ways, such a beautiful country this is.  The old architecture, rustic barns dating back hundreds of years, hedgerows between the fields of crops, wooded areas; it just really takes your breath away to be living in a history book.   We pull into Brighton, and drive past some phenomenal cathedrals as we pass through town.  We head right to the coast road, and park along the beach.  Mind you now, this is parallel parking, on the wrong side of the road, with the steering wheel on the wrong side, and I manage to ace it, first time.  Kristen is impressed!  But wait…there’s more!  “Check out the cool license plate on the car in front of us,” I tell her.  “Wow”, she says as she figures it out, “These guys drove here from Lithuania!”  How cool is that?

This place is beautiful and you don’t know where to look first!  We walk across the street to the beach, and here we are in for our first surprise – the entire beach is made of large rounded gravel.  There is not a grain of sand in sight!  At first I thought, this is interesting, they put gravel at the top of the seawall, but no, right into the sea it went.  How weird is this?  Not the most comfortable beach to lay on, and man, jamming your umbrella into the rocks must truly suck big time!  Definitely a beach for shoes to be worn, but hey, it’s a beach, so we’re loving it!  We walk along the world’s first and oldest electric railway, the Volks Railway, the oldest continuously operating one of its kind in the world, going into service back in 1883.  There’s at the huge 150 ft tall Brighton Ferris Wheel, offering fantastic views of the town and the beach, and the world famous Brighton Pier juts out hundreds of yards over the English Channel.  Located across the street is the Sea Life Aquarium, the first in the world, built for the British royalty back in the late 1800’s.  A hundred or more small restaurants, pubs, and shops line the street along the beach, and many more are located in the town.  Truly a place to come and spend a few days exploring, but that’s not on our itinerary for this trip.  We snap some photos as we walk to our destination – the Royal Pavilion.

If you were to Google examples of royal excess, this place would come up at the very top of your list.  The Royal Pavilion, the spectacular seaside palace of the Prince Regent (George IV) transformed by John Nash and a team of architects, designers and interior decorators, between 1815 and 1822 into one of the most dazzling and exotic buildings in the British Isles.  The Pavilion houses furniture and works of art including original pieces lent by Her Majesty The Queen and a magnificent display of Regency silver-gilt. The Royal Pavilion Tearoom, with its fabulous balcony, overlooks the Pavilion gardens, which have also been returned to their original Regency splendor.  Originally constructed as a local monument, known as the Marine Room in the early 1800’s. One of the most unique features of the design was the decision to leave the original obelisk domed structures in place and constructed a cast iron frame around their base to envelope the existing buildings and expand upon them.  This was revolutionary and the first time cast iron was ever used in a building structure……ok, ok….the engineer in me gets carried away sometimes!  Anyhow, the entire building was constructed and finished to recreate the look and feel of Indian, China and Southeast Asia, with bamboo, silk, ornate wood carvings and metal castings – you truly feel you are in a different land when you’re inside.  Decorated from head to toe with hand made silk wallpaper, ornate carved columns and woodwork, dedicated rooms for every fancy, the first steam heated kitchen, just about everything you could imagine was in there, clearly with no budgetary limitations whatsoever.  When royalty from other lands would visit, they would typically prepare over 100 main courses alone, just to make sure the visitors had something they liked – they had sample menus saved from some of the events for us to view.  And remember, this was before Tupperware, so the waste just had to be absolutely phenomenal from these events.  Again, we’re talking no budgetary restraints here whatsoever.  Check out more on the website link above to learn about this fantastic place.

And of course some interesting military history to be found here also.  During the Great War (WWl) the British Army was significantly outnumbered, so they drew upon the resources of the vast British Empire and brought in troops from the colonies.  One of the biggest contributors was India, who sent tens of thousands of troops to fight alongside (and when possible, in front of) the British soldiers.  They served in the European theater from the onset of hostilities in 1914 through 1916, at which point they were transferred to Africa and the Middle East campaigns.  During this time though, the army needed to expand their hospital network, and the pavilion proved to be a perfect setting for the East Indian troops.  And just like today, no one could really get along – between the Sikh’s, Hindu’s, Muslim’s, Meat-Eating Muslim’s, and a few more sects, plus the ‘untouchables’ that did the dirty work, the hospital had to maintain nine different kitchens, different slaughterhouses (some animals killed by chopping off head, others had to have the spinal cord left intact, so many religious variations), independent water supplies (they could not even share a tap!) and separate laundries, cremation grounds and more.  It is no wonder they are still fighting amongst themselves today over there.  This was just crazy but neat to see that the religious extremists we see on the news today are hardly new items – these are some deep rooted beliefs and issues at work here.

Three hours (and a hundred questions to the staff) later, we strolled back to the car, and then embarked on a seaside drive along the coast, before turning inland to head towards Salisbury and Stonehenge.  We got a little fouled up in our navigation along the way, and with the sun heading towards the horizon, we decided a potty break at the McDonalds in Southampton would give us a chance to ask some locals for directions.  So we take care of business and ask the staff working the counter how to get to Salisbury, and you can immediately tell from the expressions that these guys were probably not candidates to appear on ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’.  They mumbled amongst themselves, and then finally the one who appeared to be the leader of the pack says, “That’s pretty far away.  We’re not sure how to get there.”  Mind you now, it turns out we are 21 miles from Salisbury, but this collective group of young folks in this village have not only never traveled that far from home, but have no concept of how to get there either.  Geeez!   We’re about to head out the door to figure this out ourselves when one fellow comes up and says “I can help you”. Although he cannot give us directions all the way to Salisbury, he can, however get us to a town that is nearly ten miles up the road, and he knows there will be signs for our destination to be found there.  We get in the car, and Kristen comments, “That was unbelievable.  I go to a school 1,000 miles from home, and here, you’d have to circumnavigate this country to get that many miles on your odometer.  Amazing that these people we asked have never left the village!”   I concur, but at least we are pointed in the right direction, these crazy Americans, and with true international explorer spirit, we’re going to make it to Salisbury and beyond!

Back on the road, we make it over the horizon to the new land beyond, and find ourselves rolling into the lovely village of Salisbury.  In addition to our sightseeing, we have a few assignments to complete during this condensed visit.  Kristen needs a local cell phone, and a hair dryer.  Argos, the UK version of Circuit City, has been recommended as the place to go, so we’ve kept our eyes open for a location during our drives.  Suddenly, on the opposite side of the ‘dual carriageway’ (divided highway) we spot on, so time for another U-turn and we find ourselves pulling into the lot.  Into the store we go, and knowing we are like lambs in the woods here, I grab the first staffer I see and ask if he could help us out.  “I sure can’”, he responds, “Just give me a moment.”  So we mull about, and sure enough, Dan, our newest British acquaintance, is true to his word and comes out to find us.  We explain what we are looking for in a phone, and he walks us through the process and the plans and we end up with one that will work.  As I am wandering the store, he’s put the sales charm on K, and she ends up not only with her hair dryer, but a straightener and a few other things too.  But wait, the phone we got appears to need a SIM card, and they are out of stock.  “Hold on,” Dan says, as he bolts out the front door of the store.  That was odd, I am thinking, but he’s back in a minute and says, “OK, I went to the Car Phone store at the other end of the shopping center and checked – they are open and they have the SIM card.”  Talk about service above and beyond, I guess it helps that Kristen is cute – I should take her shopping with me more often.  So we finish up our business here, and walk down to the Car Phone store, only to find that today, the day after New Years, is a bank holiday, so they cannot process credit card sales. Now someone surely missed the mark on that one, we laugh, and head back to the car.  Fast forward – turns out there is a SIM card packaged with the phone, so we end up with service before the night is over.

Back on the road we continue into the village, where the highlight is the Salisbury Cathedral, at 404 ft tall, it is the tallest church in the UK, and more impressive than that, it was built as a fast-track project, completed in only 38 years, in 1320.  We pull the car over along the massive structure, get out and walk around the beautiful grounds, snap a few jillion photos, and finally we move on to find a parking spot, as K has chosen a restaurant from her guidebook for us in this town – the Haunch of Venison.  Not sure where it is, so we pop our head into a local convenience store and ask, and a friendly woman says, “I’m walking that way, I’ll take you.”  You cannot ask for a more helpful, friendlier, more interactive experience than we have encountered at every step along this adventure, and it’s not over yet.  We walk along with our new friend, chatting about the town and other matters, and sure enough, she points us right in the direction of our destination, which, by the way, she recommends highly also, and points out it is an original English Pub, not like these chains they have today! We like that!

This is arguably the oldest hostelry in all of England, and it’s really a hole in the wall sort of place.  They have been open and operating for 700 years, since 1320.  That is almost incomprehensible – makes you wonder if one day someone will find themselves sitting in a  TGIFridays or Chili’s and thinking back over the last 700 years of serving the public…..NOT!   Anyhow, back to today…tourist test number one is getting in the front doors, which are spaced so closely in the tiny foyer that only one person can get in at a time, and you have to close the one door behind you to make room to open the next one.  Obviously, they have no real fire code requirements here!  But we’re finally in, and the eyes are on us – they don’t get many Americans here.  This place can hold maybe 16 people max, in two little areas, that are not even connected, you have to go back outside to get from one corner of the bar to the other.  A cute little fireplace, some locals with their dogs, a pewter-topped bar (the only one in England, it is pointed out by one of the locals), and an array of beers on tap, none of which, for anyone who knows my tastes, that I’ll enjoy.  But K does fine, sampling a number of the local stouts and brews, each with a story behind it.   They don’t start serving meals until six, so we’ve got nearly an hour to hang in the bar.  It’s kinda funny, one person says something to us, then another, and finally nearly the whole bar is talking to us, asking questions, telling stories…they truly don’t get a lot of outsiders here!  We do find out that they have had American visitors in the past, mainly during the Second World War, when there were numerous airfields built around the town, and the US airmen’s presence is noted in the old B17 radio cabinets that now serve as bases for some of the taps at the bar – pretty darn cool to see!  We’re really enjoying ourselves here, learning of the local history, local events, political views, culinary recommendations and more, and keep at it until K’s stomach rumblings become obvious – her last meal, other than this morning’s porridge – was a bowl of soup from room service last evening.  She did inherit her dad’s eating habits, once a day if needed, and doesn’t whine about missing meals, which makes her a perfect traveling companion for me.  For dinner K goes with a stuffed squash, about the size of a football (American-version) and I choose the trademark, haunch of venison.  My meal is delicious, with local venison filets prepared just right, along with all the sides.  Great dining choice, Kristen!

Well we’ve got a ninety-mile ride to get home in front of us, but with two days of wrong-side driving practice, it’s a cakewalk, even with the round-a-bouts and sometimes difficult to understand traffic signage.  We pull back into the Sheraton at midnight and put our heads down for our final rest before K heads off to school in the morning.

Tuesday morning comes and it begins with a celebration – it’s my birthday!  It’s raining and dreary out, a perfect day to conclude the fun part of the trip and get down to the more serious purpose – to deliver Ms K to school.  We’re up early, fueling up the car at the local “petrol” station, and then working our way through rush hour traffic to her dorm residence.  Her navigating skills again prove to be pretty good, and dad is pretty cool about when we miss turns and need to backtrack, so it’s a positive experience overall.  She meets the woman in charge of housing and her room is not quite ready, so we hang for a bit in the student hall.  Another young lady arrives, a native of Hawaii who is attending college in Boston, and she is here for her semester abroad also, so K immediately bonds and the two of them strike it off well.  Seeing she is in good hands, it’s time for me to head back to the airport to return the car and catch my flight, so I bid my #1 princess goodbye and get back on the road for my last run.  Car is returned without a glitch, and I shuttle over to Heathrow.

Well the gods of fate continue to shine on this mission as the good folks at Delta upgrade my seat to first all the way home, a perfect way to celebrate a most wonderful start of the new year.  Life is definitely good!

Key Largo – you’re calling our name – again!

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011

The IVS Crew in Key Largo October 2011


What is the magic of the sea that continues to draw us back, time and time again, to immerse ourselves in it’s healing embrace?  Is there something mystical about it?  Is it a subliminal return to the place where some say we came from so many millions of years ago?  Or is it the pleasant, muted euphoria that comes with the mind settling state of narcosis that the deep provides us?

Well I don’t know about you, but I’m going with #3 on the list above!  Yeah baby – and it’s time to head down under the waves again!  But this time of the year we’ve got so many fun additions to our normal Key Largo trip, including lobster hunting, and underwater pumpkin carving, to just add to the already great time we enjoy in America’s Caribbean.

Team Indian Valley Scuba head south today for another five wonderful days of splishing and splashing in the azure waters of the third largest natural reef system in the world, along the Florida Keys.  Our destination is Amoray Dive Resort, one of the most pleasant and well run operation in the islands.

My day starts off with in quasi-typical fashion, nothing is packed and I still have to build some PVC pipe frames for our upcoming DEMA show booths.  But wait, what, me worry?  Naaah!  We get the frames knocked out, I pack, sweep all the papers off my desk into my backpack, and actually head to the airport with time to spare!  No adrenalin rush today, that is for sure!

More to follow…