If you had told me a month ago that I’d be sitting in a chair in a villa in South Africa to write this first blog post, I probably would have laughed at you. My sister, Emma, and I were supposed to be in the Bahamas right now with a different program, but through some unforeseen circumstances, that program canceled three weeks before we were supposed to leave. Luckily for us, The Leap came to the rescue with a similar program in a much different location (shoutout to Milly, Claudia, and Jenny at The Leap - you rock). So here I am instead, another continent (!!!) ticked off my bucket list. Let me start by saying that getting here is an experience in itself. My sister and I hail from the Eastern United States. We left our house at 4:00pm on January 3, 2019, and arrived to Coral Divers at 3:00pm on January 5, 2019. I honestly couldn’t tell you what happened to January 4th. I think we left it somewhere in Dubai. While we were more than slightly delirious from lack of sleep, I can say that the drive from the airport in Durban to Coral Divers is a very beautiful one. You wind your way through sugar cane farms, sprawling villages, and game reserves for three hours before getting to the resort itself, which is located inside a national park. And since the point of blogging is to encourage other potential Leapers to try new experiences, I also want to point out how safe it is here at Coral. Seriously, the most dangerous things here are the monkeys, and all they do is break into your room and steal your food (oh, and there’s a scorpion in the girl’s shower. But apparently that’s not a big deal because everyone is still using said shower).
Emma and I have experienced a lot in our first week here. Like our trip to Peru, this trip to South Africa is not about tourism or safaris or game drives (Yet. Stay tuned for Weeks 11 and 12). This program is all about SCUBA diving and learning how to work a dive resort. The thing I like most so far about the program is that your dive experience level really doesn’t matter. Some of the CDC (Career Development Course) students came with only three or four dives under their belts, while others arrived with Open Water or Advanced Open Water certifications completed. Coral is really accommodating and makes sure that you get your courses done quickly and efficiently. Plus, if you’re like me and already have your basic courses and specialties done, you get to “fun dive” once a day while you wait for the others to catch up, and then you all move forward to the next stage of coursework together.
We learn together, work together, and live together here at Coral. The CDCers live in Villa, which is a 16-bedroom open-air dorm located as far away from everyone else as it’s possible to get. Everyone gets a bed, wardrobe, and desk (chair not included; we steal them from the dining hall). The CDCers who are native to South Africa bring cars loaded with every comfort of home: TVs, gaming consoles, refrigerators, posters, rugs, lamps, etc., while those of us who have to live out of a suitcase and dive bag for three months are limited to the essentials (please do yourself a kindness and bring a portable fan). We also get three meals a day, though vegetarians and vegans shouldn’t get too excited about lunch: salad and baked potatoes lose their novelty rather quickly. And just be aware: there’s no free wifi anywhere. You can pay to use the hotel’s wifi ($10 U.S. for 1 gig of data), but my recommendation would be to bring an unlocked phone (google it) and get a South African SIM card. It’s really cheap to load data onto a SIM here.
But what does a typical day look like? Since it’s the off-season from January-March, Emma and I are enjoying a much quieter version of what the other CDCers experienced from October-December. We wake up two hours before the first guest boat is set to launch, so this week we’ve been lucky enough to set our alarms for 5:30am. We meet out front of Villa at 6:00am to start our day. We load two Jeeps with all the emergency backup gear the dive boats require, fire up the tractors and collect the petrol for the day, and then it’s off to the beach. On really early mornings we’re at the seaside in time to watch the sun rise over the ocean, and it makes us all feel just a little bit better about being awake so early.
Working Beach consists of several things: 1) setting up the mats so the guests don’t have to deal with sand in their dive equipment, 2) running cylinders down from the compressor rooms at least twice a day, 3) loading guest equipment onto the boats and prepping for launch, 4) running empty cylinders back up to the compressor rooms, 5) fetching extra equipment for guests, Dive Masters, or Instructors, and 6) breaking down the pavilion at the end of the day. It’s hot, we’re sweaty, everything is covered in sand, and you love every moment of it. Plus, it’s not as constant as it sounds. It’s like little bursts of intense work when the guests arrive for launch or a boat comes back in from a dive, but inbetween those moments we’re allowed to go into the ocean for snorkeling or swimming, read books, take naps, tan, work out, or simply hang around and chat with the other people wandering around Beach. Breakdown happens once the last guests have hopped back on the shuttle to the resort. When we’re done, the pavilion looks like no one was ever there (leave only footprints, right?). But the best part? We’re done by 2:00 in the afternoon.
Granted, we’ve worked an eight-hour day by the time 2:00 rolls around (naps are almost a necessity around here in the afternoons) but the rest of the day we have to ourselves. If we’re doing coursework, then we’ll study a bit. If not, then we hang around, play games, swim in the pool, drive into town, watch movies. Dinner is at 6:00 (dietary restrictions rejoice: you get actual meals catered to your needs here) and then if you’re an old lady at heart like me, you’re in bed and asleep by 9:00 (remember: 5:30 wakeup). Some of the CDCers like to go out at night with the DMs and Instructors to a local bar, but even they’re usually back by 11:00 or midnight (I’ll keep saying it: morning comes early here). It’s hard work and a lot of manual labor, but the diving is excellent (I’ll go more into the actual diving next post; no worries) and the company is even better. I’d say that so far it’s a very similar experience to being in college, except there’s more sharks than I ever experienced at my school (relax Dad, it’s a joke. We aren’t going to be eaten by sharks.) As the weeks progress, I’ll be able to get into way more detail about the diving conditions here, as well as how courses work. Emma and I are working towards our Dive Master certifications, and we’re happy to take you all along with us on our journey!