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People often talk about facing their fears but few ever actually do – which is surprising because it really is not as hard as you would think.
Last week I had the opportunity to stare down one of those fears that has occasionally woken me up in the middle of the night – sharks.
I have never been a huge fan of the sea – coming from Limpopo I am a mountain person – and I have often told people ‘you will never catch me in that big, blue, salty dam!’
However, while interviewing local adventurer Rudi Botha about a trip he took through Southern Africa, he made me an offer I just could not turn down.
When he first made the offer and I gave my reflexive response, he suggested I stay in the shark cage if this would make me feel better.
Even this was far out of my comfort zone but I thought – hey, I will be in a cage and this will be a once in a lifetime experience right?
Fast forward to Sunday morning and I was on the South Coast at the Umkomaas River Mouth with Botha and the guys from Aliwal Shoal Scuba as they loaded the shark cage onto the back of the boat while I stood there trying not to run away.
We made our way about 4km out to sea to a place nicknamed ‘shark park’ – definitely not designed to put me at ease – and lowered the cage while chumming the water to attract sharks.
They chum to attract the sharks – but they are not feeding them big chunks of meat, so there is no feeding frenzy behaviour, and the species of sharks most common in those waters are not usually surface hunters so it is not quite the same as jumping in a pit with a bunch of lions (or great whites).
Botha and our safety diver quickly slid into the water (outside the cage) and started slapping the surface and throwing bits of chum around the cage.
I must be crazy, I thought – absolutely crazy.
Eventually, with a little encouragement from the others and not wanting to appear a coward, I climbed into the cage and tried not to touch the sides – apparently the sharks have an attraction to fingers and toes.
Before I knew it a big grey shape started circling below us, slowly making its way closer and closer and was soon joined by more.
We were surrounded by Oceanic Black Tips – some of them up to three meters in length – and strangely enough I found my heartbeat slowing and my fear evaporating.
Rather than terrifying – the sharks were unspeakably beautiful, graceful and docile.
In that moment I decided that you only get one life and fear is a useless thing to fill it with – and so, going against everything I had ever said, I slipped out of the cage and started snorkeling alongside these massive predators with nothing between us but a wetsuit.
In many ways they are like dogs or cats, curious animals that would swim by – sometimes physically brushing up against you – in their attempts to figure out what these strange other creatures were in the water with them.
The only shock I felt the whole time was if I was eyeing a shark in front of or below me and suddenly one would swim up from behind and brush past – that will get your blood pumping, trust me!
It was an experience I will never forget. The smooth, effortless grace with which those sharks moved through their blue world will remain in my mind’s eye for the rest of my days and – while I am still not a fan of that big, blue, salty dam – I will never again be afraid of sharks or think of them as threatening.
So do not let fear stop you, the world is out there and it is waiting for you to jump in – without a cage.