Isla Mujeres: Whale Shark Diving

The whale shark trip was borne from a golf tournament. At a charity fundraiser for Boys Hope/Girls Hope, I was in a bidding war for a trip to go whale shark diving in Isla Mujeres. I had played in the same golf tournament the year prior and had lost out on the same trip, so I was a little more compelled to win this time. The wine helped. The bidding got to the point where I wasn’t comfortable going any higher and I conceded. However, the auctioneer asked the charity if they would be willing to offer two trips for both the top bidders. The trip was under-promised and it over-delivered. The pamphlet for the trip stated that we won three days of shark diving off of Cancun, our hotel and the airport transfers to the port of Puerto Juarez. Puerto Juarez is the ferry port in Cancun, which runs non-stop ferries to Isla Mujeres. This quaint island,, is about a 20 minute, or four horribly sung American rock songs sung by a Mexican street artist, ferry ride from Cancun. Starting from Orange County, we connected through Dallas, and ended up in Cancun around 4:30 PM. Cancun is in the Central Time Zone. We arrived on Isla Mujeres and were met by our trip organizer, photographer and resident Isla Mujeres local, Marshall Lally @marshall_lally. Anytime you get met with a golf cart, you know you are in a good place. Our hotel was a short ride- which most places would be since the island is only 5 miles from tip to tip. We were staying on the Northern tip in a hotel called the Playa Media Luna. What it lacks in luxury amenities, it makes up with in charm, location and views.

View from the room

View from the room

We rinsed the travel off of us, grabbed a margarita at the adjacent bar, and headed into the main commercial area for dinner. One thing was instantly apparent. Isla Mujeres wasn’t Cabo, and in a good way. Isla Mujeres is an island of 5,000 inhabitants; Cancun is 1,000,000. The former is a summer destination for the latter. Isla, as it is affectionately known, has more Mexican tourists than Americans, which is also a good thing. While we were certainly were approached by solicitors for music, cigars and to come into their restaurant, it was no where near the level of Cabo, which felt like we were the last consumers on earth.

Golf carts are the main mode for the tourists, and the locals opt for scooters. I kept thinking they had a civic meeting and tried to come up with the most unsafe method of transportation.

Moderator: Please provide suggestions, guys. What else can we use?

Crowd: Unicycles?!

Moderatator: No, but I like where your head is at. Keep going.

Crowd: Skateboards. Bikes? I got it- scooters.

Moderator: Good idea. Unstable and potentially hazardous. But, let’s make it more unsafe. Let’s recommend that you all ride two, three or four at a time. And bring your kids- don’t give them helmets- and if you have baby bjorns, please use those, too.

Anyway, I digress. After a great dinner at Lola Valentino, we turned in to get some rest and for the early start for the whale sharks.

The cute commercial street...

The cute commercial street…

Day 1: I will start by saying that I have always been fascinated by whale sharks and have had swimming them on my bucket list. With that being said, I wasn’t quite sure what it entailed. We met in the lobby at 7 and took the golf cart back near the ferry landing. Our boat was a 36 foot tuna fishing boat, and was reserved for four of us, plus Marshall. We had our captain and first mate as well. The fellow swimmers, and co-winners of the trip, were Doug and Dana McCaulley. Getting thrown into this experience in another country with people you don’t know can go one of two ways:epic or disastrous. We landed on the former. Doug and Dana were great to spend time with, swim with, and drink with… Back to the shark. The whale sharks arrive in Isla in June and stay until mid-August. They are brought here to eat of the abundance of bonito spawn/eggs in the water. When I say in the water, I mean everywhere. When you get out of the water, you are dotted with eggs. Our captain, Rogelio, is about as type-cast a fisherman as you can get. Tanned, sunglasses tan around his eyes, handy and knowledgeable. Rogelio came across the sharks 30 years ago while fishing and would see them annually over the next 25 years. In 2007, he ran a few tourist trips out to the sharks. In 2008, he ran more trips, and from that point on, a veritable eco-tourism economy was hatched. Now, about 40 boats head out each morning during shark season. Incredibly, they work in tandem and collaboratively, fanning out across the expanse of the ocean. The sharks are 20 miles off the coast, or about an hour boat ride. After checking the previous day’s location of the sharks, and currents, they have an idea where they will be. But, this is Mother Nature, and the sharks are certainly not on our schedule. You are not guaranteed to find them. After 20 miles, Rogelio slows the boat, and Juan, our first mate, sits atop the third level of our boat on the tuna tower. The water is typically rather calm, and warm.

Our boat...the Lilly M.

Our boat…the Lilly M.

About 80 degrees, which is great for us, too. Juan is looking for the dorsal fin and the large tail fin to pierce the water; after all, the sharks are skimming the surface for their food. Each of the boat’s captains is reporting over the radio on where he is and what he sees, or doesn’t see. Upon seeing a shark, or sharks, he alerts the others, and it is a mass convergence at those coordinates. After the chaos on the radio, and arriving at the location of the sharks, we were told to get geared up and ready to jump in. That’s it. Swim. Swim next to them, at them and don’t touch them. A few boats were dropping their guests in near, and almost on the sharks. It looked like a war scene, with troops deploying into a battle zone. “Go, go, go! he screamed. “Here he comes- go! In the water!” I jumped. Amy jumped right after. I cleared my snorkel, found Amy and looked down. The water was a beautiful blue hue, but no bottom to be seen. We were 20 miles out and the water is around 120 feet deep.

Love the spots on this one, both on the shark and reflecting.

Love the spots on this one, both on the shark and reflecting.

Then, you see it. Sometimes it is a mouth. Sometimes, a rough outline of something big. Really big. Really, really big. The shape comes into focus- usually the spots take shape and you can get a bearing of which way the shark is heading. Ideally, he is coming straight at you. They swim slowly, and open their huge mouths to let the water pass through, filtering thousands of pounds of fish eggs into their stomach. The first shark I saw, I swam as fast as I could toward it. They may swim slow most of the time, but they are also 40 feet long and weigh 30 tons. They are strong, and can be fast. As I swam toward him, he slowly changed course and swam by. There is a scene in Jaws, when Roy Schneider and Richard Dreyfuss see that shark for the first time as it slowly swims by. It was the impetus for the famous line, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat…” As that first shark swam by me, I thought the same thing. It just kept going and going. The tail, propelling the massive shark through the water, elegantly and serenely. The goofy mouth, polka dots and adolescent eyes betraying its regal nature.

Eggs taste better than humans.

Eggs taste better than humans.

It is a shark. But, primarily eats plankton, fish eggs, or on occasion, small fish. Not humans. We/I never felt in danger or threatened, although they probably felt disturbed while trying to eat. Marshall told a story that a kid must have designed the whale shark. They are huge. Swim slowly on the surface, don’t mind humans and are polka dotted. After scaring away the first shark, you begin to get the hang of it. There is a scene in the movie, “Colors”, when Sean Penn and Robert Duvall are talking. Penn is the newbie and Duvall is the seasoned veteran. Duvall tells the story of two bulls overlooking a flock of cows. The macho one says to the other, “I’m gonna run down there and mate with that one!” The wiser bull, scoffs at the younger one. The younger one looks over indignantly, and asks,”What’s your problem?” The wise bull looks at him and chides the younger one,”I’m gonna walk down there and mate with them all.” That message was the same for the whale sharks. Swim slowly and don’t use your arms to swim and splash. Slowly kick next to the sharks and you get a longer, better experience. After that first one, we had that experience. Swimming slowly, we could amble up next to sharks, and vice versa. They were everywhere, corralled by the outlying boats, we floated in the water with these massive creatures.

amy side view_shark

Amy hanging with her shark.

At one point I was swimming next to a shark and I was resigned to let it go. I felt a wack on my leg. I assumed it was another swimmer pushing by me and trying to nudge me out of the way. (That happens) As I turned around to see who was impatiently hitting me, I realized it was the shark’s massive tail fin pushing me out of the way. I was a fly it was brushing away from its face on a hot day, most likely not even knowing it had touched me. There were times when I would be swimming next to a shark and another one would pass right by us, swimming the opposite direction. “Botella! Marshall!! Botella!” Those words were the most desired words to hear from Juan or Rogelio, spotting from the boat. A botella, or bottle, is when the sharks stop swimming, and float vertically. As they are upright, they open their massive mouths and water pours in, and with it, massive amounts of fish eggs. It is an amazing sight to witness. A very cool dynamic exists between Marshall, our boat captains, and actually, the other captains, as well. Marshall isn’t seen as an American looking to exploit the sharks or the captains. Rather, he is respected by them and is seen as a protector and promoter of the sharks; which in turn creates a mutually respectful relationship. The picture below of the shark silhouette with Amy and I flanking it, is a great shot. Here is a video of the shot taking place.

(And if you want to check out a few minute video montage of some of my videos, here is a link to them. It provides a pretty good idea of what you are getting on the trip:

Silhoutte of the whale shark, flanked by me and Amy.

Silhoutte of the whale shark, flanked by me and Amy.

Some well deserved zzzz's

Some well deserved zzzz’s

The videos of the trip are great and provide a view into what it is like to swim with them. But, I must say, the photographs from Marshall are much more dramatic, powerful, beautiful and visually stunning. They tell a better story of the experience. I am trying to convince Marshall to be my official vacation photographer…

He's smiling at Amy...

He’s smiling at Amy…

At a certain point in the late morning, the sharks are sated and need a break from their buffet. Capable of diving to almost 5,000 feet, they head down from the surface and the show is over. Elated, we climb back on the boat and head back to shore, but the day isn’t over yet. Just north of Isla Mujeres is a beautiful reef. Shallow, with incredible white sand on the bottom and spectacular blue water, that is usually reserved for the Caribbean or Bora Bora. We anchor in the reef, and have the place to ourselves. Snorkeling, relaxing and telling fish stories…while Juan prepares fresh ceviche. Freshly caught trigger fish was diced and marinated and cooked with lime as we started in from the whale shark location. Arriving at the reef, it was mixed with onion, cilantro, salt, pepper and once ready to serve, tomato is added. Sitting on a spectacular reef, with a cold drink and freshly made ceviche is about as good as it gets.

Nothing like hanging with these animals.

Nothing like hanging with these animals.

(As an aside, a while back, Rogelio made ceviche for the group after the shark dive. Marshall made a comment that it was really good and asked if he could do make it again the next day. He did. And every day after. Now, each boat captain or first mate makes ceviche as part of their tour…)

Relaxing on the Lilly M after our ceviche and snorkel

Relaxing on the Lilly M after our ceviche and snorkel

After a couple hours at the reef, we head back the final 10 miles to Isla, where we grab a beer to recap the day. Following that, a nap is about as inevitable as me speaking broken Spanish to the locals. We head back to the main commercial street, this time at Compadres. Amy crushed the Mexico Combo while my flank steak couldn’t have been better. The two ex-pats next to us bought us some wine and told old stories about the island, having lived here since 1987. That was Day 1. We weren’t sure it could be topped but were anxious for Day 2.

Day 2: The permit division in Mexico does not allow the same captain to take out the same boat on consecutive days, so we moved from the Lilly M to the Andrea M. We traded in Rogelio for Dave, Tito for Juan. The Lilly M was a diesel inboard motor, while the Andrea M had two outboard motors, which made it faster. Hopefully, a little more reliable, too. On our way back in yesterday, Rogelio quickly turned off the engine, and climbed into the engine compartment. We had a fuel filter problem. Amazingly, he had a spare, and 20 minutes later, we were good to go. Day 2 saw us add two more swimmers, Asher and Jordan. The new total of 6 meant that instead of all of us in the water at the same time, we had to go in groups of two, taking turns on a revolving “drops”. As I mentioned previously, the captains call out when they spot a shark. It took longer this day, and unlike the day before the call today was for a lone shark. By the time we arrived, there were five boats around one shark. The way it works with a lone shark is that the boats queue up and drop their swimmers in for a pass, pick them up and get back in line. With six swimmers, you may get one pass an hour.

They are really hungry.

They are really hungry. Amy sharing his meal-

Luckily, as we were about to queue up, the call came in that a group of sharks was spotted nearby and we took off to meet them. The ocean was rougher today than the first day with fewer sharks; and we had more divers. We lowered our expectations from day one. With bigger swells, the sharks were more difficult to spot from the surface and we had less time in the water with them due to the rotation system. But, seeing the sharks on day two was no less amazing than the first day. Once again, we had instances of multiple sharks at one time, long swims with one sharks and cool feeding experiences.

We are having more fun than the shark...

We are having more fun than the shark…

The most dangerous animal in the sea certainly isn’t the whale shark or a great white, but man. I proved no exception. As I was approaching the boat, a swell hit me as I was taking off my mask. I reached for the outside of the swim ladder just as Amy was climbing up and my fin pushed her pinky toe down, breaking her toe. Lucky for her, we decided not to use her for bait and we kept her around. She even joined me on our last rotation- although you can see her favoring that leg… Like the previous day, we headed back to ‘our’ reef for more snorkeling, ceviche and some beers. While I once again proved I am not competent at catching lobster with my hands, we did see barracuda, trigger fish(we ate his cousin again for lunch), puffer fish, a school of Jax, amongst others. We returned, washed off the fish eggs, and napped again. We awoke, went to our favorite outdoor bar for a margarita, and then took the cart around the island for a tour. Unfortunately, both the dolphin and turtle experiences were closed, and we ended up back at our margarita bar for dinner. We bumped into Marshall and had an awesome dinner overlooking the reef.

Day 3: Back down to four divers again, and back with Rogelio and Juan on the Lilly M, we headed back out for our last day of diving. Day three was calm and still. The air temp was around 90 again, with the water still hovering around 80. But, we had no swells today. Right as we got into the ‘search’ mode for the tiburones ballenas, we heard the “lo se voy”, and we knew they were spotted. I peered around the side of the boat and saw us approaching about three boats and asked Rogelio if it was a single shark or a group. “Un grupo”, came back to me. That was a relief and we all geared up.

Amy looks, um, small next to the shark.

Amy looks, um, small next to the shark.

We asked we were all going out together again or in turns, and Rogelio gave us the nod to all go in again. The water was lake-like and we slid into the water with shimmering dorsal fins all around us. We had sharks to ourselves, enjoying their whimsical feeding and swimming. Without the anxiety of the boat hordes, or a dearth of sharks, we reveled in the moment. With intermittent calls from the boat, “Marshall! Marshall! (and the accent on the ‘all’) we followed the sharks for a good 2 hours, never coming back to the boat. Floating in the middle of the ocean is a unique experience- at once liberating while also suffocating. You are alone, yet surrounded. Surrounded by the largest fish in the world, and protected by the boat captains. Not long again it was these captains that were fishing, and maybe catching these sharks. Now, they are their most ardent defenders. Rogelio imploring us not to touch ‘his’ sharks, for his livelihood depended on it.

Just awesome.

Just awesome.

After the activity slowed down, we opted to bypass the reef and go closer to the island. We opted to head to North Beach, which is the shallow water on the northern tip of our hotel. Waist to chest high crystal clear water awaited us. Once anchored we jumped in and quickly finished our last five beers.

Relaxing with beers and ceviche on North Beach

Relaxing with beers and ceviche on North Beach

Our partners in crime, Doug and Dana, walked to shore and up to a bar, where they got us re-enforcements, and waded back out to our boat. Now that we were replenished, we had time to relax and enjoy the scenery. This reef is the summer stomping ground of boaters across Mexico who pull up, anchor and party on their boats and at the bars nearby. The ceviche was soon ready and we crushed the last servings of Juan’s batch. Shower, nap and a trip to Fenix was again in the cards. As I walked up, the same bartender greeted me. “Two margaritas, con rocos, sin sal, para llevar.” Two margaritas on the rocks, no salt, to go. He knew me. It was time to go…

Sunset view from our last dinner.

Sunset view from our last dinner.

A good way to end the trip.

A good way to end the trip.

We regrouped for one last dinner, huge margaritas, a few Cuban cigars, bad Spanish and resignation that the trip was over. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to swim with the whale sharks. I just never knew what it was going to be like. I didn’t know the entire experience was going to be better than I expected. The people warmer, the sights more amazing, the memories deeper and the profound feeling to return sooner. The true testament to a good vacation is not having bought a time-share and wanting to return the next year.


2014 Brazil….

I had a few requests to dust off the travel blog and write some posts down in Brazil.

I just re-read my last post from 2010 and it mentioned that Brazil preparations were commencing…well, they are finished and we leave in 4 days.

The plan is to fly down to Brazil on Friday, 6/13, and start off in Salvador, which is on the northeastern coast.

We have two games in Salvador:

Portugal vs. Germany on Monday, 6/16.

Friday, 6/20: France vs. Switzerland.

Here is the stadium in Salvador-

We are in Salvador until Saturday morning, 6/21. Then, off to Rio.

Sunday, 6/22 in Rio: Belgium vs. Russia.

2 night trip to Buzios from 6/23-6/25.

Wednesday 6/25 in Rio: Ecuador vs. France

And the famous Rio stadium, The Maracana.


It all begins this week! More to come once we get down to Brazil. Stay tuned.


Hermanus, Gansbaai: Great White Shark Dive

We holed up in Hermanus as a midpoint between Cape Town and the dive spot, Gansbaai. Hermanus is apparently the best land-based whale watching spot; however, according to the locals, the whales were being shy at the moment. We were a couple of weeks too early for the whales. Not much in Hermanus, otherwise.

not good when the stick shift hits the passengers leg when shifting.

In our boredom, we created a new drink: the Hermanus Hammer. Not good and i don’t think it will catch on. Grape Fanta, Jaeger, Red Bull and Vodka.

Not a good drink...

After our Hammer invention, we were pretty tired and went to bed in our 5 bed hostel room. Maybe it wasn’t a five star hotel…or even a one star, but…well, there are no positives.

The next morning we drove up the coast to the dive spot, Gansbaai. was the tour company, and Brian McFarlane was our company. Apparently, he is of some fame…and he was great. Very excited to captain and show us the sharks. The harbor is a rocky enclave that the boats need to shoot through the surfline to get out…needs a little work. After getting through the break, it is about a 10-15 minute ride to a small island and its neighbor island. The small gap is called “Shark Alley” which is the highest concentration of great whites on the planet.

Getting a closer look...of us.

Just the dorsal fin...

Carcaradon Carcarias

The tour boat is 51′ and holds 40 people. We had 36 people on our tour, and groups of 8 people were in the cage at a time. With the chum, tuna head as bait and the seal decoy, the sharks arrived immediately. We saw between 10-12 great whites, that were between 12-15 feet and weighed about a ton.

Video grab from our dive

They were massive, curious, quick, powerful, graceful and scary. It was awesome. You stand in this cage with your eyesight at the water line. As a shark is nearby, the crew yells a shark is coming and you lower yourself into the water to watch them swim, eat and explore. (Except the English guy next to me- he told me it was safer to look from above…With no sound, it was eery; you would be looking one way at a shark and gaze to the other side and a huge shark would be 5 feet away. Humans really have no chance against them. That being said, they weren’t too interested in us or the boat at all once the bait was removed from the water.

we're going to need a bigger boat

At certain points, the sharks would come straight up and attack the seal decoy at a good pace, which was spectalur. They can accelerate very quickly and when you are in the path of their wake, it is quite impressive how much water they displace.One group, entering the cage with great whites around, screamed, “close the lid!! Please.” Pretty funny, actually.  

Our cage

Curious shark...

A little close- the power of their tales is amazing.

In the cage…

After everyone gets a dive, if you are interested, you can go back in, which we all did. Glad we had a cage…and overall a great experience! Well, not the part when they dragged a dead tuna’s head over my head…but everything else was pretty amazing.

Cape Town: Days 2 and 3(Last Day)

We arrived in Cape Town after the shark dive to find out our apartment was adjacent to the Bourbon Street of Cape Town. To say it was loud would be an understatement. South Africa had just played and beat France so the street and city were alive. We ended up at a restaurant called Meat. So, we ordered….meat. Turns out the chef didn’t like the meat so we were told to order something else. We ordered chicken and sausage rolls with fries. We didn’t receive any rolls…or fries. But, we did get beans, sweet potatoes, coleslaw and corn on the cob. Clearly, the Afrikaans wasn’t translating to the menu. The long day wore us out and we went to bed to the humming of vuvuzelas until 4 AM…

The view from our apartment

From the top after our hike

We woke up with intentions to hike up Table Mountain, take the cable car down and use the early afternoon to drive down to the Cape of Good Hope, check out some penguins and come back for the USA-Algeria game. After taking the long way up, our short hike took over 3 hours and by the time we got back down the mountain, it was time to head to a bar for the game.

View from Table Mountain...

Finishing the hike up

Both the USA and England games were on at the same time at the bar, which is a large bar overlooking the bay in Cape Town. The bar was split 80/20 in favor of American fans and the place was covered with American flags. We had the entire bar singing the national anthem- which you don’t get too often in Africa.

As the game progressed and we still hadn’t scored, our hopes began to dim and some of the fans began to watch the England game in hopes of a Slovenia goal, which would have put us through. With all of our missed opportunities and chances, it seemed like we were doomed to miss out at the expense of the bad calls. But then, the goal happened. I have never seen a celebration like it. People hugging, jumping, singing, rounds of 100 shots, vuvuzelas being used as beer bongs….it was complete craziness. One Indian-American was there and was buying bottles of tequila and passing out shots to American fans. It was an amazing experience but didn’t bode well for the next 40 hours of traveling I had starting at 5 AM the next day.  It was the perfect way to end the trip.

Celebrating the win...

I flew on Emirates, which was the official airline of the World Cup. If you liked, one of the channels showed the previous days’ games on your personal monitor. The third game of our 8 hour flight to Dubai was the USA game from the night before. We were about 6 hours into our flight. As the goal was scored, about 40% of the plane erupted in a cheer again- pretty cool. Almost as cool as the Russian that was sitting next to me reading Russian Playboy. Even better was when he took it with him to the bathroom…yes, to read the articles.

After the 8 hour layover and subsequent 16 hour flight, I arrived home with severe jet lag but it was an amazing trip, a spectacular country that exceeded all expectations and held a fantastic World Cup.

Proper use of a vuvuzela

Last thoughts: Vuvuzelas: yes, they were everywhere. Yes, they were used too often. By everyone. Construction workers, retail employees, airline employees, tourists, locals…us. But, they added a unique vibe, a special feel and provided a great atmosphere at games. Well, unless the guy behind you had one. The TV does not capture the essence of them and at the games they do not sound like a bee hive; rather, they provided an ebb and flow of emotion and decibels at games. As most of the horns were blown by the locals, they would get in synch with each other and it was actually pretty cool to listen to.


Culture: (soccer) Soccer in South Africa has a long way to go to be accepted by the white minority(10% of the population, we heard). They are still a rugby loving minority and don’t quite embrace or even understand soccer. The opposite is true of the black majority. They love soccer and don’t quite embrace rugby. The animosity is thinly veiled in conversations. That being said, the entire country was engulfed in the World Cup and the success of the South African team. Everyone had their jerseys on for game day. Mom’s, kids, workers, grandparents, whites, blacks…it was cool to see. I can’t remember any event that had such widespread support from a country.

Safety: We were warned, repeatedly, of the dangers of South Africa. Usually, the first thing we heard about the country. That fact is unfortunate. The country offers so much from a cultural, natural and tourist destination that the safety issue should not be the primary description of the country. We never felt in danger- and while we were careful- it was not a fear that overwhelmed us. We drove ourselves at night. We walked to dinner. We went to action bars and shabeens…ok, that is a local joke. But, overall, the safety issue was overblown and should not be a rationale for not going to South Africa.

Cape Town: Day 1

Ok, we took the early flight from Joburg to Cape Town for the last leg of our trip. This leg includes wine tasting, potentially whale watching, and the great white shark dive.

After the 1 hour 40 minute flight, we tried to take advantage ofthe warm weather to hike up Table Mountain. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones with that idea- as about 5,000 other people were trying the same thing, so we headed to our hotel in the wine region, about 30 minutes outside of town, Stellenbosch. Our friend, a local South African, was givng us a tour of the wineries…and driving.

He picked us up and promptly took us to a great winery overlooking the wine valley and wine farms. After our tasting, we grabbed lunch and headed to the next winery. The wine valley is spectacular- similar to Yosemite and Napa mixed together…

The next winery was a Dutch/Cape winery built in the 1600’s and we sat on the lawn and had enjoyed wines in the sun. After that winery we went to an even older winery but wasn’t as nice, and it was similar to a winery in Ercole’s…but with spider webs and dirt. Although the ports were amazing and the old school winery feel was nice.

Makes Ercole's look clean...

After that winery our host drove us around the valley a little more. As he continued to drive, he kept mentioning the properties his family owned. I kept thinking of Four Weddings and a Funeral, when one of the characters asks the other if he is in fact the richest man in England. He replies, matter of factly, that he is 7th. The Queen is 1st and that Richard Branson did quite well…

Our host may have been the richest man in South Africa. After the tour, we headed back to his estate and winery for dinner. He provided us winery’s wine and we had a proper South African braai, or BBQ.

After sampling all of their wines by the bottle, we headed back to our hotel in order to drive to Hermanus for our white shark dive.

Greg, not in here...

Wine farms…

View from Tocara winery

The next day, we hit up two more wineries on the way out. We wet to the next region over- similar to the Napa and Sonoma proximity- and then drove the remaining hour to Hermanus. Hermanus is considered the best land based place in the world to see whales but we are about a month early on their migratory route.

We are in a hostel tonight and off to the dive tomorrow.

Joburg: 3 games: Argentina/S. Korea; USA/Slovenia and Denmark/Cameroon

Soccer City- Argentia vs South KoreaOur seatsMessi's corner kickA little colder in Joburgred devils

We had an early, although quick,  flight to Jo-burg for the next three nights, and three games. So far, Jo-burg is just like any big city, so it isn’t that different or distinct. Took the rental car straight to a “Park and Ride” location where you jump on a bus to the game. 10 minute bus ride and you arrive at the stadium. The new complex, Soccer City, is awesome- but not sure what they are going to do here once the WC ends. Reminds me of a Rose Bowl type stadium, in an offset area, with a hint of Qualcomm in San Diego.

The stadium was incredible and we had really good seats. The Argentines were clearly the majority, and the locals were also clearly in favor of the South Americans. Something we haven’t caught onto as American fans yet are the draping of flags from the rafters- the Argentines had flags and banners everywhere. It felt like we were in Buenos Aires.

 Very good game and lots of goals again- we’ve been lucky so far. 9 goals in two games. We sat next to a Haitian-American, a South African, a North Korean and two Scots….and yes, they were wearing kilts. They were from Falkirk, where a famous battle was fought by William Wallace and represented in Braveheart, but against all my better intentions, I didn’t yell, “Freedom!”

Our seats...

Left the stadium, endured some rush hour traffic and headed over to my buddy’s parent’s house where we are staying for the next three nights. They cooked us a proper South African home-cooked meal which was fantastic and we heard great stories about life in South Africa over the past few decades and lots of cultural stories about integration, segregation, etc.

**Sidenote- driving on the wrong side of the road, in a manual transmission while shifting with your left hand was a challenge.

Big game today- we are off to the USA-Slovenia game, which should be really fun. Looking forward to catching an American game on foreign soil. The Americans represent the largest group traveling in the WC so we should have a good crowd here.

USA Game:

10 rand....or $1.25.

Chris and I drove in from our house in the suburbs to Dave’s hotel to pick him up. He also had a couple friends in town that would be joining us. As we pulled up to the hotel in our car, two Slovenian men came out and asked if they could have a ride to the game. We said sure, and they joined us.

We carpooled to the game and parked in a “park and walk” about a mile from the stadium. The walk was through a little bit of a dodgy neighborhood, but all of the residents were chanting “USA! USA”, which was pretty cool. We walked by a school(a nursery school) that was in session but was advertising sausages for sale as a fundraiser. We asked if they had any beers, she said yes, so for the kids, we went in. The slogan, “beers for kids” was coined. As the sea of Americans walked by, we lured them in with our slogan and soon we had about 100-200 American fans tailgating in a nursery school. Pretty incredible.

After an hour of fundraising, we headed over to the stadium. Chris and I were in the Slovenia section and they were quite fun to sit next to. Fun, jovial and they bought us beers.

After their first two goals, they were apologizing to us- Chris and I kept telling them it wasn’t over yet. After our first goal, they instantly became nervous. After our second, we went crazy- running up the aisles, and celebrating with the other American and South African fans that were rooting for us. After the third, pandemonium broke loose. We were going crazy and it took a couple minutes before we realized the goal was disallowed. They refused to show a replay on the big screen to avoid any controversy.  It was the most fun I’ve ever had at a sporting event.

Our view from the game

Nursery pre-party...

The amount of American fans supporting our team on another continent with such passion was a sight to see- very memorable. As is tradition with soccer games, the players exchange jerseys after the game. Chris, my travel companion, exchanged his US jersey with a Slovenian fan and is now the proud owner of a Slovenian jersey.

I don't want your scarf, man, i want your jersey

After the game, and a police escort to our car, it became very cold and we went to a nearby plaza to watch the England game…but the temps were in the 20’s and the game was boring so we called it a night.


The next day we went over to the local lion park. Sounds normal, like everyone should have a lion park. The park enabled you to pet and hang out with the lion cubs and then drive around 4 lion enclosures to get close to the lions. (Don’t be like the Chinese tourists last year and get out of your car to take pictures. You end up dead.)

A little too big to be in the lion cub area...

Anyway, the lions don’t like vuvuzelas. One of the cars, adorned in an Argentina flag, blew their horn in one of the enclosures to the dismay of the lion pride. Two of the matriarchs stood up to get a better view. The car blew the horn again, louder this time. The lions took offense and walked over to the car, and promptly ripped the flag off the car and trunk. It was in shreds shortly after.

Brazilian lions don't like the Argentine flag

Messi corner kick

Safari: Day 2

Dave pointing at the crocs on the islet

Safari: Day 2.

We woke up early for the 6:00 AM safari drive. Thankfully, no Germans or Austrians on our Jeep, but we did have an interesting group with us; proving once again that the most interesting animals in the park were in our jeep.

The tour starts out in the dark, and cold, and after about 30 minutes, the sun rises and the removes the need for spotlights. We did see the same lion eating again but didn’t have as good of a vantage point and didn’t stay long; although the pride looked like it had another kill, a zebra this time. The couple in the first row(we were in the second row) were not a fan of animals, which is interesting being on a safari. After watching the lion eat for maybe 5-10 minutes, the lady, asked if we could go, that we’d seen enough, and that lions were dangerous….next, we saw Nyala, Impala, giraffe and a couple buffalo. Once again, the lady asked to leave shortly after seeing each animal as they were “dangerous”. She fell asleep shortly after and began snoring. We took a poll in the jeep and she just missed out being fed to the lions.

The three hour tour, yes, a three hour tour, ended and we jumped in our Renault  and headed around the park for our own tour, sans crazy Europeans and frightened ladies. Immediately, we came across a large family of baboons which were climbing next t o us and at one point, we thought they were going to jump into our windows.  We came across a large herd of Nyala, a pack of elephants and a cool black rhino. The black rhinos are the aggressive type and one had attacked a car the night before and smashed the entire front of it. Our Renault would have exploded if it touched us. The rules at the game parks are simple- keep a safe distance from the elephants(and rhinos apparently), don’t get out of your car for any reason and don’t drive a Renault. We adhered to the first two guidelines but the third one, we failed to follow. Shortly into our drive, the “check engine” light came on, and then the passenger window refused to go up. Driving on dirt roads, with animals potentially jumping into your cars was an adventure. By the time we finished up the drive, we had a fine layer of dirt over us and the interior, and a baboon in the back seat. Ok, I made that last part up. Not to mention, we had a 2 hour drive back to Durban the next morning with no window.

Rhino crossing

The next morning we once again drove into the park, and headed to the flatter portion of the park, which was also drier. We spotted a pack of vultures hovering over the road and in the trees and knew a kill was nearby. Thank you, Discovery Channel. Right next to the road, a couple of hyenas were munching on the leftover carcass from a lion kill. We didn’t see the lion pride, but the hyenas and vultures were sharing the meal. Lots of giraffe, wildebeest, elephants, impala and baboons. The strange thing about safaris is how you quickly get sensitized to seeing these amazing animals. We would come across a pack of giraffe that would be 10 feet away, and we would be nonchalant…”yeah, we’ve seen these before…”

We took a short drive out of the park, and stopped at a roadside shack to buy some  nick-nacks. The matriarch did not speak English – her dialect was one of the 15 official languages, which incorporated clicking noises. I gave her a coke bottle. OK, enough of my obscure 80’s movie references. After leaving the shack, we headed to another World Wildlife Preserve, the St. Lucia Wetlands. We stopped at a Croc Centre to check out the four types of African Crocs, before heading to lunch on the river. The patio had a view of the wetlands where we could easily see 10-15 crocs on the shore nearby with hippos coming up and down, wading nearby. The restaurant was part of a ski boat club and people were launching boats nearby. Kayaking, and skiing in that water…uh…no thank you but didn’t seem like a big deal to the locals.

After lunch we drove back, in silence with our window down, to Durban. We checked into a really cool B&B, and walked to another nice part of town for the Bafana Bafana game- once again everyone was in their SA jersey. Listening to their loud singing and pride while their national anthem played was really cool. Unfortunately, they didn’t play well, and the crowd was muted a bit. The area was full of pubs and they were all packed with Swiss and Spanish fans, as they had played nearby that night. Watching the SA women dance with drunken Swiss fans was a sight to be seen. And, after watching the Swiss dance, it is confirmed, that I am part Swiss.

Back to the airport tomorrow morning for an early flight to Jo-Burg and the Argentina-South Korea game.   

Safari sunrise this time...

Rhino crossing...

Close up...

The Thinker

Giraffe crossing

Another monkey...

Pack of impala waiting to be eaten.

Wildebeest and zebra relaxing

Vultures flying to their next meal.

St. Lucia Wetlands with crocs and hippos